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Would Banning Glass From Bars Curb Violence?

New research from Australia says it’s not that simple.


Alcohol, anger, and glass objects make for a dangerous cocktail. Though it’s not a common term in American media, Commonwealth news media often use the word “glassing” to describe attacking someone with a drinking glass or glass bottle. Glass attacks are often sudden, set off by a drunken temper. But they have lasting effects: Glassing can cause heavy bleeding, permanent injury, scarring, and, because the weapons most often land on the victim’s head, facial disfigurement or blindness. (Google-image-searching for this term is really not recommended.)

According to a 2010 Daily Mail article about glassing, there were at that time 87,000 glass attacks a year in the U.K., all of which cost the national health system there £2.7 billion, with a B. Those statistics were provided to support an effort by some bars to curb this type of violence, by experimenting with special “shatter-proof” pint glasses made by layering glass and resin. British politicians have also tried to ban glass products altogether in bars with particularly violent reputations. The danger of broken glass—either purposeful or accidental—is why many stadiums and clubs in the U.S. have switched over to aluminum bottles.

Following a 2008 ban on glass from “high-risk licensed premises” after midnight in some parts of Australia, there was a noticeable drop in glassing attacks in those areas.

Australia, too, has taken many public and proactive steps in preventing glassing. In response to a spate of glass attacks there in the past several years, tempered glass that “crumples” rather than shatters has became popular in bars and hotels in Western Australia. In 2011, an Australian liquor licensing minister gave his prediction to the Courier-Mail that all Queensland pubs would be glass-free in 10 years: “You can never guarantee any licensed premise, or indeed any home will ever be incident-free, but it's what is a reasonable action in the circumstances,” said Paul Lucas. “Sooner or later, insurers will start to insist on it because sometimes assaults in hotels are followed by civil action.”

Queensland, in northeastern Australia, has been at the center of debate about whether enforcing bans against glass in establishments that sell alcohol would help reduce alcohol-related violence. But a new study out this week, the first to collect and analyze data on “glassing” injuries in emergency rooms, suggests that it’s not such a simple equation.

The research, conducted by Queensland health researchers and emergency room specialists and published in Emergency Medicine Australasia, included data about violent assaults from 1999 to 2011. The findings that were perhaps not surprising were that most attacks overwhelmingly involved men rather than women, and that the parts of the body that were most often hurt were the head and face. What was perhaps surprising was that, for all of the media and political attention on glassing, injuries from a glass object only made up a small portion (nine percent) of all alcohol-related violence.

On the other hand, the “violence” as defined in this study included verbal altercation, which presumably would be the largest portion of confrontations, with only a smaller percentage actually escalating to physical injury. The authors also mentioned that, following a 2008 ban on glass from “high-risk licensed premises” after midnight in some parts of Australia, there was a noticeable drop in glassing attacks in those areas. There has also been a steady decline in glassing overall since 2007, when shatterproof glass, aluminum, and plastic came more into fashion.

So, it’s complicated. Glass bans won’t necessarily reduce all drunken violence, since glassing only makes up a small part of it. Nor would they prevent glassing or other types of alcohol-related assaults that occur in the home—both of which, the study points out, occur more frequently at home than in public.

But if it can reduce glassing even a little bit, why shouldn’t bars switch to plastic, or the resin-backed shatterproof glasses described above? Sure, plastic cups are a little tacky, but so are bar fights, so violence-prone pubs can’t really make that argument. Maybe they should try it out. As an added bonus, that Daily Mail piece about the twin-walled pints also notes that the safer material keeps beer colder for longer.