Woman sitting on a couch holding a mug.

Linda’s son bought 11 bottles of vodka in his last 10 days. She is pushing for changes to liquor license laws

The mother of a Melbourne man who died of alcohol poisoning is pushing for changes to liquor licensing laws and more scrutiny of people selling alcohol to problem drinkers.

Linda Smart’s son, Ashley, died in January 2021, just hours after purchasing his 11th bottle of vodka in 10 days – all from the same Liquorland franchise in Footscray.

Ms. Smart claims he was drunk when he made the purchase, and not for the first time.

“He was very, very drunk. He came home with a bottle,” she told 07:30.

“I said to him ‘Ashley. Why? Why did you buy it?’ And he says, ‘Mom, they’re selling it to me. They don’t care’.”

“And I left him about half past three. And he turned off his computer at six o’clock and he never woke up.’

She found him days later in his flat.

“He hadn’t contacted me. I was worried. I had my father’s funeral on Thursday. And on Friday morning I rushed to Ashley’s house because I was worried,” said Mrs. Smart.

“And he had been there four days.”

Linda Smart’s son Ashley was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.Delivered

In Victoria, the liquor licensing laws are believed to prevent bars and bottle shops from serving anyone who is intoxicated, which Ms Smart says would have been her son most days.

“I often saw him being sold drunk alcohol, and I couldn’t step in and ask them to stop selling it.”

While the law may seem clear, enforcement is nearly impossible.

The Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission told Ms Smart that in order to meet the burden of proof, the “best practice” for one of its inspectors is to witness the intoxicated person being served – a huge hurdle with fewer than 50 inspectors monitoring nearly 25,000 licensed locations.

Instead, they looked at CCTV footage of Ashley’s latest purchase, which had no sound, and said he didn’t look drunk.

Bank statement showing alcohol purchases.
In the 10 days leading up to his death, Ashley Smart bought 11 bottles of vodka.Delivered

The inspector told Ms. Smart that he would recommend considering a change in the law to include the sale of alcohol to people with substance abuse.

In a statement, committee chair Fran Thorn said they have conducted a comprehensive review.

“Because our investigation contains sensitive information, we cannot disclose detailed information about the investigation,” the statement said.

“However, based on the available evidence, we were unable to identify a violation of the law.”

Liquorland said it could not comment on the matter but said it was committed to the responsible alcohol service.

“All of our store team members receive industry-leading training in responsible serving of alcohol,” the retailer said at 7:30 a.m.

Alcohol industry ‘exploited the pandemic as a marketing opportunity’

Like many, COVID-19 hit Ashley Smart hard, exacerbating his mental health issues and his drinking problem.

He wasn’t alone – the pandemic had a significant impact on Australians’ drinking habits.

A study found that by 2021 the number of Australians drinking alcohol reached its highest level in five years, with bottle shops benefiting.

There was a nearly 30 percent increase in retail alcohol sales between 2019 and 2021, and with it an increase in alcohol-related ambulance calls and alcohol-caused deaths.

Victoria’s Alcohol Change Sarah Jackson said the alcohol industry was misusing the pandemic as a marketing opportunity.

Woman, dressed in a light purple shirt, sitting in a living room.
Sarah Jackson says the industry has encouraged consumers to use alcohol as a way to cope with the pandemic.ABC News: Lauren Day

“They had a captive audience of people in their homes in seclusion and we saw some pretty predatory marketing, pretty explicit messages encouraging people to use alcohol as a way to survive and cope,” she told 7:30 a.m.

Ms Jackson believes that the regulator needs more powers and funding to better protect problem drinkers.

“We need the regulator with much, much better resources, much more funding and an increase in that manpower,” she told 07:30.

“We also need more meaningful sanctions; a real risk that someone who serves alcohol to someone who is intoxicated will lose their license or have their license suspended.”

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