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.
Most important points:
- In Victoria, liquor licensing laws are believed to prevent bars and bottle shops from serving anyone who is intoxicated
- There are fewer than 50 inspectors overseeing nearly 25,000 licensed sites in Victoria
- There was a nearly 30 percent increase in retail alcohol sales from 2019 to 2021
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
Right now, there’s nothing stopping anyone from selling alcohol to an alcoholic.
Ms Jackson said one of the issues is that the Supreme Court has ruled that a licensee has no general duty of care to its customers.
“We believe that legislation should introduce a duty of care so that a licensee should take reasonable steps to avoid harm to its customers,” she said.
In a statement, Melissa Horne, minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation, said Victorians could rest assured that the regulator had the right resources and that the laws were adequate to minimize harm from alcohol.
“We have introduced – and will continue to introduce – strong harm reduction to reduce beverage-related harm for all Victorians, including strengthening the licensing application process for major packaged beverage stores, strengthening requirements related to online sales and delivery of alcohol, and expand the definition of alcohol-related harm,” the statement said.
The pandemic also caused a huge surge in the popularity of online alcohol delivery.
Last October, the New South Wales liquor regulator announced it was investigating popular alcohol delivery service Jimmy Brings following the death of a 49-year-old man who reportedly spent $24,000 at the company over three years, including daily orders in the weeks prior to his death.
The NSW regulator has now confirmed until 7.30am that it could identify no violations of the liquor laws at the time and has closed the investigation, but the laws have since been tightened.
Ms Jackson said more needed to be done to regulate the online sale and delivery of alcohol, including a mandatory delay between order and delivery to stop impulsive purchases.
“Right now, deliveries can take place in less than 30 minutes, which means if people are already drunk they can continue that drinking session and people who are high-risk drinkers are at risk of harm,” she said.
Australian drinking culture ‘just like America’s gun culture’
It has now been 18 months since her son died and Mrs. Smart wants to turn her grief and anger into action.
She wants more control within the drink industry and a rethink of Australian attitudes to drinking.
“We have a huge drinking culture, just like America has the gun culture, but we don’t see it the same,” she said at 7:30 a.m.
“We will say, ‘America, put down your weapons’; here we are not willing to change at all, we are not willing to put down our beer or our vodka because there is too much money involved.”
Watch this story from 7:30 p.m. tonight on ABC TV and ABC iview.
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