Australia's booze culture on trial


At festive times alcohol sits enthroned. Soon afterwards, as most recently in Sydney, it often stands in the dock, on trial for lethal violence in the cities and the trail of broken bottles lying in wait for children's feet on beaches.

The strategies of the defence and the prosecution are predictable. The libertarian response is to keep silent about the money that is made from alcohol, and to insist that people, not alcohol is the problem. So the proper response is to lock up for longer people who act violently. This incidentally illustrates the libertarian paradox that the higher the priority which societies place on individual freedom, the greater the number of individuals they will deprive of their freedom.

The prosecution will cite the testimony of doctors, social workers and police who see the children injured by broken glass, the people killed and maimed by drunken violence, the women abused, and the damage done to body and spirit by addiction, generally propose tighter regulation. Usually nothing much happens.

In New South Wales the centrepiece of reform has been mandatory mimimum sentences for those convicted of violent offences under the influence of alcohol. It has been accompanied by some restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the city. The Victorian Government has taken over only mandatory sentencing. It is doubtful whether any of these measures will reduce significantly the harm caused by alcohol abuse.

As with guns in the United States, it is easy to blame legislators and interest groups for ineffective regulation. It is more helpful first to reflect on the place of alcohol in our culture and the power of a pervasive myth that will always protect alcohol from effective regulation.

The reality is that alcohol is a substance that affects mood, often pleasurably, and lowers inhibitions. Many people drink abusively and become addicted to it, with tragic consequences for their own lives and for society. In these respects it is like nicotine, opium and its derivatives, and marijuana.

The myth of alcohol is that it is an indispensable and effective gateway to autonomous, confident and connected lives. For young people alcohol is an important part of rites of transition: from adolescence to adulthood, and increasingly from childhood to adolescence. Alcohol is valued because it loosens inhibitions against socialising and can help them for a moment to feel in charge of their lives.

Binge drinking among adolescents reflects the myth of adult drinking. To be an adult, particularly a male, is to be able to hold one's drink, to work hard and drink hard, and so to be one of the mates.

All mood changing substances rely on this myth of a better life and relationships. The alcohol myth is distinctive because it is rooted in high as well as in popular culture. Literature and cultivated conversation celebrate alcohol in a way that, with some exceptions, is not true of other mood altering substances like opium and nicotine. The encomia to wine and other drinks romanticise the drinking of alcohol and sentimentalise the way in which abuse and addiction are seen. Alcohol can then be seen to be the spur that makes genius run free, and its abuse justified by its contribution to creativity.

In such popular literature as the crime stories featuring John Rebus and Hieronymus Bosch, heavy drinking is tied to the protagonists' flaws. But it also reflects their integrity in refusing to harden themselves against human pain and injustice, so distinguishing them from their sober and morally compromised superior officers.

Alcohol also has a privileged place in polite society. To talk knowledgeably about the bouquet and aroma of wines or spirits from different districts and to be familiar with the conventions of serving alcohol are seen as a mark of good breeding and sophistication.

My point in describing the ways in which alcohol is so deeply embedded in the myths of our culture is not to decry drinking, enjoying or talking about alcohol but to explain why attempts to regulate its consumption and limit the damage it does will be unlikely to succeed. At all levels of our culture alcohol is protected.

Heavy handed regulation of mood changing substances usually has more bad consequences than good, as was the case of Prohibition in the USA, and is arguably the case in the criminalisation of opium and other hard drugs.

The key changes needed are cultural. Not to demonise alcohol but to mock the romantic myths that obscure its reality: that it is a mind altering drug pleasant in moderation but one which is massively abused with great cost to those addicted, to those whose lives they touch, and to society at large.

The plain packaging of alcohol may for the time being be a step too far, but plain, honest speaking about it is a necessary first step.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, alcohol



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Existing comments

I wonder what the USA would be like if Homer ever becomes President! I think with regard to the street violence in Sydney, alcohol certainly has played a role, along with other drugs. There are other significant factors too. Some people are prone to addiction, if it's not alcohol it's some other drug, or some other obsessive behaviour - so to that extent 'people' are the problem. Most people consume alcohol sensibly, some drink excessively occasionally and others become alcoholics and are unable to function. To those families touched by addiction there is a massive cost and there's nothing the least bit romantic about that. Support and effective treatment help and society needs to see alcoholism as the illness that it is.

Pam | 05 February 2014  

A drug is a drug and if it nicotine,heroin or alcohol. The article highlighted the tolerance of our society towards alcohol. Alcohol is a major employer in Australia. We have farmers growing grapes, hops, barley and rye. We have many people employed in hotels and pubs and the advertising of alcohol provides many millions to the advertising and sporting industries. We still can advertise alcohol to children during daytime, as long it occurs during sporting broadcasts. I am sure it makes more sense to sell booze during a cricket match rather then during a children programme. My concern is that children can watch alcohol advertising during the day and see an association of booze and sport. Cigarette advertising used the same dirty tricks during sporting broadcasts for a long time. It maybe time to stop promoting booze so openly to children using “sports” as an excuse.

Beat Odermatt | 05 February 2014  

Alcohol has been the Western world's number one drug of addiction since time immemorial. Culture and advertising reinforce the cosy notion that it is a harmless part of our society. It is not harmless and needs to be treated with caution. There are simpler and better ways to relax and show one's real manhood than overindulgence in alcohol. It is up to individuals in our conformist society to go against the grain and either abstain or genuinely handle it in moderation. The latter course, in our drinking culture, is very difficult. I would suggest we need to have genuine role models for young people here. These are far better than legislation or punishment although the latter may also be necessary to protect society as a whole. The idea of family discipline in this regard seems to have gone out the window possibly because it has been misunderstood and misused in the past. Australia's social morality seems in a state of flux. We may need to develop a new one which emphasises responsibilty to others and society as a whole just as much as individual freedom and self-expression. Without a proper balance between these our present malfunctioning society will continue downhill.

Edward F | 05 February 2014  

refreshingly and bracingly honest. No one talks about this much, seems to me; even here the discussion of alcohol wreckage is sparked only lately by marijuana legalization.

Brian Doyle | 06 February 2014  

Thank hou for a balanced, well considered comment on alcohol and it's place in our society. Your points make sense and point the way to future conversations on this topic. Thank you.

Jan Stenton | 06 February 2014  

Seems to me that describing wine, beer and spirits principally as mood-altering substances will reinforce what has become for many the entrenched motive for drinking them: to get drunk. Personally, I enjoy them simply as drinks and savour their refreshing deliciousness as a gift of creation. But I hate getting drunk. The abuse of just about every good thing leads to some form of kick back. Alcohol abuse, we are told, among other things, causes cancer. Our impoverished Australian approach to enjoyment, meaning mindless over- indulgence in the blessings we have, is what need healing as a cultural change. Restraint, self-control and moderation are values that are scarce in our national mindset. It sounds like a sophisticated culture: almost a spiritual attitude - not much like the one we seem to wallow in at present.

JO'D | 06 February 2014  

Thank you for a wonderful article Andrew. You are correct in your comment that it is not this particular neuro-toxic drug that is the issue. Our nation celebrates its abuse and our streets, roads and homes suffer as a consequence. Advertisements for beer in particular deify moronic behaviour and cleverly connect it to the "Aussie way". My home town of Perth becomes a booze fuelled dangerous and ugly place every weekend and yet no-one of influence seems to have the gumption to begin the process of changing the binge drinking mind-set that has become embedded in our culture.

martin loney | 06 February 2014  

I'm with Beat. In terms of legislation, it's advertising - a significant precursor to alcohol abuse - that needs to be tackled before violence - just one of the adverse outcomes. Closing down tobacco advertising worked; smoking is no longer cool. Why wouldn't the same approach work with booze? And if we must penalise the abuser, why not introduce on-the-spot fines for blood alcohol levels higher than (say 0.10%) in a public place rather than waiting until a drunk kills someone and then give them a mandatory sentence?

Ginger Meggs | 06 February 2014  

I agree that alcohol consumption is out of control in Australia, particularly in the youth. i wonder who is paying for all the police intervention necessary to control the city streets on the weekend evenings. Perhaps the bill should go to the liquor outlets who continue to sell drinks to obviously intoxicated individuals. What about breathalizer testing being done on entry to pubs after 11pm and refusing entry to those above a reasonable limit!! I'm sick of seeing the scenes of alcohol induced violence on the nightly news!

Katharine | 06 February 2014  

You're right - a cultural is needed. Understanding the damage done to, say teenage brains, should be brought to the fore. Recognition of the alcoholic and alcoholism in a person needs to be identified and treatment through rehabs working in consultation with organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous. Oddly people consider a "weakness" or odd if one does not drink. When I grew up the legal drinking age was 21, and many young men (mostly) started drinking about 18 or 19 years of age. The slogan used was "If you're old enough to fight for your country you're old enough to drink". Unfortunately when the drinking age was dropped children stated drinking at age 13 or 14. In the USA the legal age is mostly back to age 21. So as I see it: 1. an awareness program to recognise alcoholism 2. Raise the legal drinking age to 21 (or 20) 3. Advertising campaigns similar to one on the smoking,

John Morris | 12 February 2014  

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