20 August 2018

The blame game: sports, alcohol, violence, and research

A raft of headlines reported on a fascinating finding that linked State of Origin matches to a spike in domestic violence.

For instance, the SBS report ran the headline "Study exposes 'clear' Origin link to DV" (where DV is domestic violence).

Big story because basically, the data showed that between 6pm on State of Origin night to 6am the following morning, domestic violence increased by 40%. Incidentally, non-domestic violence (blokes beating up other blokes) went up by 70% as well.

Despite this sobering result, the media have leapt on this story, and spun a long drinking yarn. Specifically, they have drawn conclusions about the involvement of alcohol in all of this - even though alcohol consumption is not directly observed in the original study in any way.
More specifically, the media reports claims that alcohol advertising and sponsorship of these games is to blame (e.g., see NBN's reporting).

But that is not what the data show. The study is very simple and it simply shows that on game nights, there is a spike in violence. 

It is certainly reasonable to speculate that sports night encourages more socialising, more alcohol consumption, more excitement, more aggression perhaps. But it is difficult to claim that alcohol sponsorship is the cause. 

Run the counterfactual - if ALL advertising and sponsorship of such events by alcohol was eliminated, would the consumption of alcohol stop? More importantly, would the violence stop?

Claiming that the advertising of alcohol is the cause of violence on sports nights is like claiming that promotion of champagne is the cause of violence on New Year's Eve. 

And yes, there's a spike in violence on New Year's Eve as has been reported in Australia and overseas

This is not to say that alcohol is not a contributing factor. The sports event (like New Year's Eve) is a social event. Many people like to drink on a social event, some will drink too much, and some regrettably, may be violent.

It may be agreed that sporting and other social events encourage alcohol consumption. But does it follow that alcohol advertising is cuing people to drink? 

Surprisingly perhaps, there is not strong evidence to suggest that this is the case. A review of the cuing effects of food and beverage advertising suggests that it has little effect on consumption by adults.

Besides, a review of multiple studies show that the drinking patterns of children tend to be associated with the drinking patterns of their parents. 

We parents worry about the impact of alcohol advertising on children's drinking, but completely overlook the influence of our own drinking and that of our friends.

I am dismissive of media and public fears of alcohol advertising when I see adults who will down a beer to celebrate each time their team scores. And then ask one of their children to get them another beer from the fridge in readiness for the next score.

Not only is the story short on hard data, but it encourages more twittering about short advertising spots where everyone runs to the toilet to drain the last beer, all while ignoring the far more pervasive impact of how the whole culture in which we are immersed consumes alcohol.

Alcohol advertisers are not creating these problems. They are simply like seagulls drawn to chips on the beach. Sports events, public holidays and large public, social celebrations are when some people like to drink, and alcohol advertisers will squawk away in the hope of capturing their share of the chips.

To be clear, I have no aversion to the alcohol advertising and sponsorship being removed - partly because I simply am not much of a sports spectator. But I do have an objection to it being removed on false and specious grounds, and particularly if it removes what appears to be a pleasure and a joy for many.

The claim that alcohol advertising and sponsorship is the problem is a furphy.

Curiously, no-one seems to have correctly understood the real implications of this research. What this research evokes is a deeper, darker concern.

The research shows that big sports events tend to be associated with violence. The same result has been observed elsewhere in the world with large televised soccer matches in France and the UK leading to an increase of admissions to emergency departments.

The public health implication of this research is straightforward: large sports events should be stopped! 

Suddenly, the supporters of sport will rally round protecting their pleasure from the fun-police. The methodology will be questioned, the conclusions challenged, the results dismissed. 

This is how the research game is played. Anyone with a vested interest in the outcome of the results should be vetted. 

Otherwise, research results become a football triumphantly carried towards the goal of the team in possession. And research becomes little more than a sport.

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