01 Nov, 2012 Last updated: 16 Dec, 2014

In this opinion piece by VicHealth Chief Jerril Rechter, she argues that the love affair between sports and alcohol must end, as research reveals Melbourne Cup is the booziest sports event of the year in Melbourne.

An edited version of this opinion piece was published in the Herald Sun, 1 November, 2012.

I love Cup Day. It’s a great event, it signals the unofficial end of the long Melbourne winter and heralds the start of the holiday season – but there’s one phenomenon it’s fair to say most Melbournites have observed.

Anyone who finds themselves at Flinders Street Station as the sun sets on Melbourne Cup Day is treated to a spectacle that is simultaneously amusing and confronting.

Women with fascinators askew and high heels in hand stumble out of trains. Some sit in gutters. Intoxicated men puff their chests and hurl verbal spears at one another, and sometimes punches. Many filter out into the city in search of more booze to carry on the festivities.

While the vast majority of race-goers celebrate responsibly, unfortunately, many wind up in the care of our emergency services.

Each year, 110,000 race-goers converge on Flemington for all of the glitz of the 143 year old racing tradition. Thousands more celebrate the fine spring public holiday at home or out and about with mates. But we all know it’s not always a glamorous occasion.

New VicHealth and Turning Point research into emergency services data from the past 10 years in Victoria shows Melbourne Cup is the single worst sports event on the Victorian sporting calendar for alcohol intoxication and assaults. And the AFL Grand Final isn’t far behind, particularly for alcohol-related assaults among men.

There are measures we can take to look after our mates, but there are also broader issues at play that need addressing from a policy perspective.

The Cup is a greatly anticipated event and people traditionally start drinking very early. It also heralds the start of the warm weather party season. Revelers from rural and regional Victoria often make a special trip into the city. For many young people, it’s their first ‘long-haul’ drinking experience.

Inevitably, whenever a large amount of alcohol is involved, bad decisions are made, and people get hurt.

Every year, the Melbourne Cup paramedics tend to people who are so drunk that they fall unconscious or vomit over their $400 dresses and suits. And then there are those who don’t see the stairs and break bones and others who become violent. Some are so smashed, they don’t even make it through the gates when they open. The risk of car crashes increases with the heavy public holiday traffic and as revellers, some drunk, move from venue to venue.

And when the event finishes and the better behaved members of the crowd have left, the ambos are left to attend to those patrons who are asleep or semi conscious, abandoned by their friends. If the medicos can’t find someone to pick them up, they often spend the night in hospital, taking up a bed while they sober up. Meanwhile, at backyard barbeques across the state, paramedics are faced with volatile situations that can quickly turn violent.

Our emergency services are more than well-equipped to respond to these incidents, but they want all Victorians to know that staying safe on Melbourne Cup Day and indeed any large sporting event, is a community-wide problem and a community-wide responsibility.
We agree. No one wants to say that you can’t have a celebratory glass of champagne or enjoy a cold beer on Melbourne Cup Day, but the last thing our medicos want is for people to have too many.

Common sense should prevail. Ask yourself if it’s wise to have 10 champagnes and no food, keep an eye on your friends, dress appropriately for the unpredictable Melbourne weather to avoid sunburn, heatstroke or hypothermia. Pace yourself. Drink water.

Our research report is significant, because we haven’t had the hard data to back up what we’ve long suspected – that large sports events and excessive drinking have a complicated love-hate relationship.

One of the major problems is that alcohol is so deeply embedded in our national image that we’ve become immune to just how prolific alcohol advertising is and how much of it reaches young people.

The Commercial Television Code of Practice states that alcohol ads cannot be shown before 8.30pm. But the very same code allows for a bizarre loophole where alcohol ads can screen during live sports broadcasts at any time of the day. This includes the Melbourne Cup.
In 2009, an estimated 281,000 children saw alcohol ads aired during the live race. In 2010, 355,000 kids under 15 saw the beer ads during the AFL Grand Final.

Research shows that exposing young people to alcohol advertising increases the likelihood that they will start to drink alcohol, and to drink more. The alcohol industry knows that for a new generation of drinkers, just like the generations before, alcohol will become part and parcel with the spectator sport experience.

Alcohol companies market their products for these events, whether it’s ads for Carlton Draught during the AFL finals or James Boags in the lead up to the Melbourne Cup.

They are made to turn more people onto their brands, and to increase consumption of their products.

In the long-term, we can begin to disconnect the unhealthy relationship between alcohol and sports by limiting the exposure of alcohol advertising and promotion to young people. A good starting point is to remove this loophole which allows alcohol television advertising during live sports broadcasts.

In the meantime, it’s up to us to take care of their own safety and look after their friends, so everyone can enjoy the Cup Day festivities safely and responsibly.