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Deputy Chairperson, Armidale Community Alcohol Strategy Committee, Armidale City Council, PO Box 75A, Armidale NSW 2350, Australia
The Armidale community has been involved with initiatives relating to the use of alcohol for the past fifteen years. Initial research involved school students and education programs designed to broaden their understanding in relation to alcohol use. The Armidale and New England Hospital pioneered the development of Dependency Resource Units.
The Armidale community developed a community alcohol strategy after a workshop held in 1991. The strategy is now the responsibility of the Armidale City Council. There has been an attempt to integrate a wide range of initiatives under the umbrella of this council committee. These include programs relating to the needs of youth, the responsible serving of alcohol and alcohol problems facing the Aboriginal community.
Problems faced during the implementation phase of all these programs have been documented. A community development process has been maintained despite changing personnel.
Armidale is a provincial city in the New England area of New South Wales. It is the largest tablelands area in Australia and the source of some of the world's finest wool. It is an educational and ecclesiastical centre and is the site of the University of New England which was Australia's first country university.
The local community's serious interest in the problems relating to alcohol consumption commenced in 1977 when a study involving a cross-section of nearly 1,000 students revealed widespread ignorance about the effect of alcohol consumption on driving performance (Connor, B 1978). This was in marked contrast to the results from a similar study performed in 1983 where most students had better knowledge about the accepted alcohol levels (Freebody and Connor 1984). These studies revealed the importance attached by the students to the media for the transmission of information about drinking and driving and their confusion over penalties for alcohol-related traffic offences. This mis-information was reflected in the students requesting that penalties be increased. The Drink Driving Education Materials Program (DDEMP) was trialled for New South Wales in the Armidale High School after the second study was completed. This program which was favourably evaluated was the first attempt to introduce this topic into the state's secondary school curriculum.
A Dependency Resource Unit was initiated at the Armidale and New England Hospital under the leadership of Dr Pat O'Neill. This pioneering venture aimed at dealing with all dependencies on the assumption that they were the result of similar addictive behaviours. These behaviours were confronted as a form of therapy and this method was extended to a programme for the rehabilitation of drunken drivers. However, this approach failed largely because the clients were seen to re-enforce each other's behaviour and there were no major repercussions if their behaviour did not alter. At that time, ten years ago, it was impossible to ensure consistency of entry to rehabilitation as the programme was not supported uniformly by the magisterial system or the legal profession. The New England Traffic Centre then tried the approach of introducing information about alcohol use and its effect on driving performance as part of a general traffic education programme for adults. The theory behind this approach was that, at least, information supplied to those with the right attitude might help them to act more safely on the road. A "young traffic offenders" introduced successfully on the New South Wales central coast was found to be demographically impractical in the more sparsely populated hinterland.
It was the development of community policing and Police Consultative Committees especially in New South Wales during 1987 which highlighted the Armidale community to the widespread damage caused by alcohol abuse which was seen as the basis for much of the city's local crime and violence.
This was the setting in which it was decided to develop an Armidale Community Alcohol Strategy.
In July 1991 a community workshop was held at the New South Wales Traffic Education Centre in Armidale. Key "stakeholders" in all the major city institutions as well as involved professionals were invited to attend. The aim of this meeting was to review a sample Armidale Community Alcohol Strategy Document which looked at the following areas:
The community was being given a very broad brief in terms of the way it should approach the drug of major abuse in its midst. This was accepted and it was decided that a committee should be formed to overview the rewriting of the strategy which was completed over the next twelve months.
It was unanimously agreed that the Alcohol Strategy Committee should be a sub-committee of the Armidale City Council and after prolonged negotiation this was officially accepted. This decision had two important ramifications:
The Committee meets every month or every two months in the Armidale City Council building. The meetings are chaired by a member of the local community with the Mayor as ex officio chairperson. Secretarial assistance is provided by Council.
The Committee sees the issue of alcohol abuse as complex and its major long term aim is to help reduce harm caused to individuals and the community as a result of the excessive consumption of alcohol. This is seen as a community responsibility and one which involves many disciplines. The Committee has tackled one major project each year while supporting related activities in the community.
In 1993 a Community Alcohol Forum was held over a day and a half with the aim of sensitising key community groups to the issues surrounding the use of alcohol and to provide perspectives on the extent and consequences of alcohol abuse in Armidale. After a Conference Dinner, a Hypothetical entitled "And introducing our Drunk of Honour-Responsibility, Perception and a Pint of Port" was presented in order to demonstrate the dilemmas faced by the organisers of a community sporting dinner when the guest of honour consumes excessive amounts of alcohol. This exercise has since been repeated by other groups in Armidale. After the presentation of papers detailing many issues in relation to alcohol use participants agreed on local action priorities particularly in the areas of education and alcohol-free activities for young people.
In 1994 a Regional Seminar on Responsible Hospitality Practice entitled "Profitability & Responsibility" was held in the Tourism and Hospitality Section of the Armidale Campus of the New England TAFE. The planning for this event had really occurred over the previous six years and followed the Australian Institute of Criminology's identification of responsible serving of alcohol as a key issue in the fight against the abuse of alcohol in Australian society. The Armidale community had been investigating means of promoting responsible hospitality practice but, despite intensive negotiations with local licensees, the initial trials faltered through lack of meaningful input from the commercial aspect of the industry. The breakthrough finally came with the support of the Victorian Liquor Licensing Commission which gave permission for their Program Leader to conduct in Armidale a Seminar similar to those which had been successfully evaluated in Victoria. Other contributions came from the New South Wales Police State Licensing Command and a University leader in student alcohol policies on Australasian campuses. The seminar was attended by more than 40 licensees, hotel staff, police and health professionals. There was much common ground for all participants and an understanding that one of the key results of responsible alcohol serving is improving the economics of the industry. Certificates of attendance have since been presented to all who attended and follow-up evaluation is being arranged.
In 1995 the Armidale Community Alcohol Strategy Committee plans to release a major publication detailing the many facets of alcohol abuse and the resources already in place to deal with it. The planning for this booklet has taken twelve months. The other major initiative for the Committee is the support of alcohol-free entertainment for the younger members of the community who also assist with surveys carried out by the Committee.
The Alcohol Strategy Committee acts as a forum for intersectional discussion so that key shareholders in the alcohol field can share ideas and resources. The Committee at this stage has not been involved in political lobbying in relation to alcohol harm minimisation strategies. The community is slowly working towards a schools' policy in relation to alcohol consumption and entertainment as is the University of New England. Committee members have been involved in these initiatives and in Boogal-wenah which is a most significant self-help group for Aborigines with alcohol-related and other problems.
The existence of the Committee has also encouraged the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales to allocate one of its Anti-Drink Drive Project Officers in the Northern Region of the state. This has allowed very close co-operation between the work of that Officer and the Committee, particularly in relation to the responsible serving of alcohol.
Committee members have liaised with other alcohol-workers across Australia and have presented papers at the Winter School in the Sun Conference in Brisbane and the Workshop "Community based alcohol harm prevention: What's working and why?" held as part of the Seventh National Health Promotion Conference, Brisbane, 12 - 15 February 1995. There has been support from the National Centre for Research into the Prevention of Drug Abuse in Perth.
The initiation of a grass-roots community-based alcohol strategy in Australia is a difficult and complex task. Already there have been lessons learned in Armidale which may be of assistance to other community groups.
In the planning stages it was important to determine which groups were supportive of the initiative. Inconsistencies in Health Department funding for alcohol workers caused great difficulties in developing a coherent role for the committee within the health care system.
Locking the Committee's work into the Local Government organisation has been crucial in gaining responsibility and respect for its work.
Funding is not seen as an important issue at this stage as the aim has been to finance only one initiative at a time.
The most vital concern in relation to the committee's role is that of membership; the commitment to a very long-term cause and its attendant danger of "burn-out". There needs to be a social development process which survives despite the constant changes of personnel which seems to be a feature of rural Australia. Local Government support provides some constancy. The Committee's success has been partly due to its restriction of activities and ensuring that those State Government Officers (e.g., police, educators, alcohol workers) with a vested interest are directly involved in the work of the Committee.
Flexibility has been important within the overall harm-minimisation strategy. This has permitted new ideas to flourish even though they may not have appeared in the initial Strategy document which should really be regarded as a vehicle for prioritizing areas for review.
Alcohol consumption is an integral part of the Australian social scene. Harm minimisation can be encouraged by the development of a long-term community alcohol strategy like the programme in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.
Connor, B. "Road Safety - The Student Drivers' View". Australian Journal of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 1978: 5,2:46.
Freebody, P. and Connor, B. "Road Safety, Perceptions of final year secondary school students". Medical Journal of Australia, 1948: 141: 815-817.