Cutting back alcohol sales hours cut hospitalisations for youth - study

Public health experts are calling for earlier closing times for bars and shops selling alcohol after tracking a substantial fall in the number of young people hospitalised due to assaults after 24-hour sales ended.

New research from the University of Otago shows assault-related hospitalisations fell by 11 percent at weekends after bars and clubs were made to close no later than 4am with no takeaway alcohol sales after 11pm seven years ago.

The drop was the largest among 15- to 29-year-olds, who make up more than half of those hospitalised.

The study's lead author, public health expert Professor Emerita Jennie Connor, said among that age group there were 200 fewer hospitalisations, an 18 percent drop.

"The findings were heartening and were consistent with both reduced numbers of assaults and reduced severity of injuries, due to lower levels of intoxication late at night," she said.

Prof Connor would like late night alcohol sales further restricted with earlier closing times for bars and clubs.

"There is a range of harms other than violence that are caused by late night heavy drinking including unintentional injuries and involvement in crime, and there are considerable social impacts," she said.

"New Zealand's alcohol regulations are still very permissive and further reductions could provide many benefits with little downside. California is an example of 2am closing being compatible with a vibrant nightlife."

The research, published in the international scientific journal Addiction, is part of a larger University of Otago project to evaluate the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

The law came into force in 2013, abolishing 24-hour alcohol licences and setting maximum trading hours for all alcohol outlets.

Now pubs, bars and clubs with an appropriate licence can be open between 8am and 4am and bottle shops and supermarkets can sell alcohol between 7am and 11pm.

"More than 90 percent of alcohol outlets were not affected by the changes, as they were already operating within the maximum hours. Those that were compelled to close earlier had been disproportionately contributing to alcohol-related assaults," said Prof Connor.

As well as hospitalisations, the study looked at police data on the number of recorded night-time assaults. That analysis also showed a substantial reduction in assaults at the time the hours changed.

Alcohol Action advocates for evidence based policy to reduce harm from alcohol.

Chairperson Tony Farrell said the study shows that a further reduction in hours of purchase would reduce hospitalisations.

"These findings reinforce what we know about alcohol availability contributing harm generally and that late night alcohol availability is particularly harmful," he said.

"Importantly the study shows that the harm can be reversed with straightforward measures that apply to the whole population, but only affect a minority of people. The majority of those people are heavy drinking young adults".

Alcohol Action would like to see alcohol sales reduced to between 10am -1am for cafes, bars and restaurants and 10am to 10pm for liquor stores.