Regulating Drinkers: Functions and Effects of Street Liquor Bans

Project Supporters:

Colonial Foundation Trust

Drug Type:
image - Alcohol Ban
Additional Project Members
Project Main Description

Over the past ten years laws prohibiting public drinking have proliferated across urban centres in Australia. Despite this proliferation there have been few evaluations of their impact or effectiveness. This project attempted to address the following the research questions:

  1. What is the impetus for public drinking bans in urban areas, and who is responsible for decisions around implementation and enforcement of these bans?
  2. How do public drinking bans affect the way that alcohol is consumed in urban areas? For example, at licensed venues, in parks or in homes?
  3. Who is impacted (both positively and negatively) by public drinking bans? How are these impacts weighed against one another?
  4. What harms are public drinking bans intended to reduce and what is the evidence of their effectiveness in reducing such harms?
  5. Should public drinking bans continue to be supported by local and state governments?

Data collection involved a comprehensive literature review of public drinking ban evaluations and interviews with 18 local council officers and 6 police officers in Melbourne.


Literature Review: We identified only sixteen evaluations of urban public drinking bans (in thirteen locations in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand), none of which had been translated into a peer-review publication. The absence of an academic dialogue on the effectiveness and impacts of public drinking laws enacted in urban areas was surprising. The most common themes identified were that public drinking bans often resulted in negative impacts to marginalised groups, resulted in displacement, and improved perceptions of safety among the community. Themes that were noted but less pervasively were concerns about police enforcement and consistency, improvement in the aesthetics of an area (by removing drinkers and/or litter and glass), and variation between stakeholder groups in support of public drinking bans, ranging from strong support from police, traders and older people, through equivocal support from general community members, to disapproval from young people and Indigenous people. Finally, there was little or no evidence that public drinking bans reduced congregations of drinkers, were understood and adhered to by the community, or reduced alcohol-related crime. No information was available from any of the evaluations on whether public drinking bans reduced rates of alcohol-related harm.

Interviews: The second paper explored a number of themes that were drawn out of interviews with local council and police officers in Melbourne, Australia. In particular, this paper focused on two dichotomous narratives that underpinned the construction of public drinking laws. Firstly, public drinking laws were supported by some council and police officers because they enabled the maintenance of public order and maximised perceptions of safety among residents. Secondly, public drinking laws were contested by some council and police officers due to concerns about discrimination of socioeconomically disadvantaged populations and confliction with personal ideologies of social equality. In attempting to understand these narratives, we drew on Lipsky’s (1980) analysis of the dilemmas faced by street-level bureaucrats. In particular, we explored the way that local government representatives and police officers attempted to negotiate the expectations of their professional role, their personal ideologies, and various impacts to the community, while also attempting to maintain the status quo, minimise social exclusion and maximise public order. In this sense, public drinking laws present a “wicked problem” (Rittel & Webber, 1973) and an anxiety-provoking social conundrum for often low-level and underpaid street-level bureaucrats.

Implications for policy: The evaluations reviewed were all lacking methodological rigor, making it difficult to conclude whether public drinking bans implemented in urban spaces have been effective or not. Our thematic analysis showed that at present, there is little evidence of public drinking bans reducing alcohol-related harm or benefitting the community. Alcohol policy must be evidence-based, and given this evidence is currently lacking, it is timely to ignite a debate about the continued implementation of public drinking laws, particularly bearing in mind the discrimination issues that are raised by such laws.

Implications for research: The methodological limitations of the evaluations we identified made it impossible to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of public drinking bans. It is clear is that more rigorous evaluations of the usefulness and impacts of public drinking laws need to be undertaken given their continued proliferation across Australia and other Western countries.

Project Supporters

Colonial Foundation Trust

Project Collaborators: External

Amy Pennay
Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, Turning Point

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