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Drowning in Drink

24 October 2008 1,031 views One Comment

It’s worth remembering that Australia’s only coup d’état took place in Sydney at a time when alcohol was widely used as a currency in the fledgling colony of New South Wales.

On 26 January 1808, Governor William Bligh (of the mutiny on the Bounty fame) was forcibly deposed by George Johnston, Commander of the New South Wales Corps. Johnston led 400 armed soldiers — many of them young — up Bridge Street, Sydney to take Bligh prisoner in what soon became known as ‘The Rum Rebellion’. This was because control over ‘rum’ (which then referred to all spirits) was a key to the acrimonious dispute between Governor Bligh and the teetotal soldier and ‘entrepreneur’ John Macarthur, who masterminded Bligh’s overthrow.

Alcohol still plays a huge role in Australian society, culture, and criminology. Indeed, last week, New South Wales Police commissioner Andrew Scipione — a well-known teetotaller — and the reformist New South Wales health minister John Della Bosca — a key Australian Labor Party powerbroker — made important policy statements about alcohol and its availability in Australia.

Scipione said that he was sick to death of his officers getting beaten up by intoxicated men and women and that, therefore, he wanted pubs and clubs in Sydney and beyond to no longer be open for seven days a week, 24 hours a day. At the same time, Della Bosca signalled that, to try to stop out-of-control binge-drinking, especially among young Australians, he favoured a ban on advertising alcohol, in much the same way that applies to cigarettes.

These provocative public statements tie in with the fact that alcohol is by far Australia’s most dangerous drug. Should any reader have doubts, consider this: when asked recently which drug causes the most problems, heroin, cocaine or crystal meth, the director of the emergency ward at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital succinctly replied: ‘Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol!’

And yet in comparison with Sydney, Melbourne is positively sober.
Thus, of the 600 pubs and clubs which serve alcohol 24 hours, seven days a week in Australia, four hundred of these venues are in New South Wales, with the overwhelming majority situated in Sydney. Scipioni points out that extremely violent American cities like Los Angeles have far fewer alcohol-related assaults than do NSW cities like Newcastle and Sydney in particular.

Although tobacco and marijuana use has decreased among Australia’s teenagers and young adults in the last 12 months, the same definitely does not apply to alcohol.
This is why, aiming to reduce the total amount of alcohol consumed by Australia’s youth, for the past few months the government has instituted a 70% increase in tax on pre-mixed drinks — widely known as ‘alcopops’ — which in practice has applied throughout Australia.

Despite the Prime Minister’s good intentions, the jury is still out about whether it will have the desired effect of reducing binge drinking among teenage boys and especially girls. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that Australia’s teenagers are simply ‘blending’ their own alcoholic drinks themselves by mixing spirits and fruit juices at a much lower price.

What is incontrovertible is that each year in Australia there are more than 3,500 deaths and 100,000 hospitalisations directly attributable to alcohol abuse.

Disturbingly, alcohol is involved in more than 50 per cent of all domestic violence and sex abuse cases. The overall yearly economic and social cost to Australian society of alcohol-related social and economic problems is $16 billion. Even subtracting income from alcohol excise and taxes, this still amounts to $7.6 billion per annum.

Alcohol is so much a part of Australia’s social fabric that it is often necessary to offer an ‘excuse’ for not drinking alcohol. Getting drunk is regarded as a ‘rite of passage’. Aussies drink to celebrate the good times and to commiserate during the bad, which means that for many it’s always time for a drink, or two, or five, or more.

Alcohol is such a damaging drug because it is both legal and readily available. It changes self-image, especially how people feel about themselves and how they relate to others. The alcohol-affected parts of the personality dominate, and drinkers experience artificial feelings of confidence and closeness to others.

Although relating actually deteriorates, alcoholics and problem drinkers are trapped in a false recollection. The next day it is the illusion of enjoyment that stays in memory. So the pattern is repeated.

People of all ages are affected this way. But teenagers are especially vulnerable to the way alcohol changes personality functioning. Their personalities are still forming. Their self-images can be easily affected, and they are less able to distinguish reality from illusion.

In Western societies, through marketing, drinking alcohol is commonly associated with feel-good emotions. We are constantly bombarded with messages that drinking different forms of alcohol is a positive social signifier.

Despite the recent, laudable, statements from the respective heads of the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League about the urgent need to change our booze culture, unreasonable drunken behaviour on the part of sportsmen and other male and female celebrities in Australia often still seems to be condoned.

Over the past four years, the number of female drinkers in Australia aged 15 to 17 consuming ready-to-drink beverages has escalated from 14% to 60%.

Disturbingly, those who drank such forms of alcohol were most at risk of alcohol-related harm. Boys aged 14 to 19 are in a similar situation. An alcohol-marketing insider recently confessed to a Melbourne newspaper that liquor companies were deliberately making stronger, sweetened drinks to appeal to young people who ‘like to get drunk faster’.

This month, a leading non-governmental non-profit educative organisation, Life Education Australia, is promoting a national campaign challenging Australians to cut out alcohol during October to help educate Australia’s teenagers and young adults about its harmful effects.

But state and federal governments still need to implement programmes to help produce a much-needed shift in attitude towards Australia’s booze culture. This has been with us since the arrival in New South Wales of the so-called ‘First Fleet’ which, as well as convicts, imported to the Antipodes a distinctive attitude towards the use of alcohol. Included in this was a belief that those people who didn’t drink where somehow not to be trusted.

Police commissioner Scipione and health minister Della Bosca both realise that reducing alcohol abuse and misuse, especially among Australia’s teenagers and young adults, needs to become a political, economic, and cultural national priority.

Ross Fitzgerald is professor of history and politics at Griffith University. He is currently writing Under the Influence, a history of alcohol in Australia, which is to be published in 2009 by ABC Books.

One Comment »

  • Mike Harmon said:

    Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!