Nation under the influence
FOR most of European history, the social effects of drunkenness were widely perceived as a problem and the individual drinker was seen as the source of that problem.
Before the 19th century, what is most notable about responses to excessive drinking is its perceived connection with licentiousness, sinfulness and crime. English laws against drunkenness enacted in 1552 and in 1606 repressed what was seen at the time as “the odious and loathsome sin of drunkenness”.
Problem drinking and alcohol-related harms hinted at moral defects in individuals, so remedies focused on punishing sinful acts or, more indirectly, increasing the wages of sin through taxation and tariffs. For those founding the British colony in NSW who were destined to be the long-term inheritors of European problems and solutions, drunkenness was one more manifestation of sinful and criminal behaviour to be brought under regulation and punishment.
From the 19th century, however, attention shifted from the moral shortcomings of the drunk to the powerful influence of alcohol. Increasingly, problem drinkers and society itself came to be seen as victims of a disease induced by a powerful addictive substance. A person was said to suffer from an addiction, with the connotation that such addicts had little control over their fates and the consequences of their actions.
Experiences in the early 20th century showed that strategies of direct control and prohibition could themselves have unintended social effects; in particular, unworkable prohibition laws could lead to a widespread reduction in respect for law and government. With the subsequent failures of large-scale prohibition in its various manifestations, the focus of dealing with problem drinking retreated from the political and legal domains to the medical domain.
From the middle of the 20th century, direct treatment and health education became the key strategies for dealing with alcohol as a social problem and the institutions responsible for dealing with the effects of problem drinking became the health department, the clinic, the rehabilitation centre and the asylum. The latter carried a residual burden of a carceral mentality: those found drunk in public places could spend a brief time in the drunk tank, while the permanently inebriated might be delivered directly to treatment centres by police.
Medical concerns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused mainly on the alcoholic, with the goal of encouraging a restoration of health and the achievement of sobriety.
When the latter goal proved to be out of reach, or at least unrealistic, for many if not most, there was a shift in the late 20th century to other approaches that stressed strategies of prevention and harm minimisation.
For the individual, this often meant so-called controlled drinking, while at the social level public health strategies were developed to manage the social effects of alcohol consumption; for example, separating drinking and drinkers from driving, and changing the drinking environment to reduce the incidence of alcohol-fuelled violence.
Prevention and early intervention were considered to be essential, but if drinking to unsafe levels was a problem for some individuals, then perhaps an environment could be created or modified that reduced these dangers and encouraged the safer consumption of alcohol.
Changes to the physical environment could include, for example, the provision of adequate, well-spaced seating, availability of taxis and public transport, entertainment and the provision of water and hot snacks.
These ideas reflected a shift from viewing alcoholism as essentially a private health issue to understanding problem drinking to be a matter of public health, and meant “extending intervention to areas such as education and domestic violence prevention”.
In effect, the target group for regulatory measures was increased from alcoholics to include all drinkers of alcohol.
PUBLIC concern about the use and misuse of alcohol in Australia continues apace. While we await the results of developments in Cape York, there are signs that sensible alcohol restrictions are working in indigenous communities elsewhere. Last year, when the liquor licensees at Halls Creek in the Kimberley agreed to restrict sales of full-strength beer to 30 cans a person a day for two weeks, the number of assaults in the community were halved.
Others may not have learned the lesson so well. Bra boy surf gang leader Koby Abberton, star of John Singleton’s Bluetongue brewery internet beer ads, designed to circumvent alcohol advertising codes, was jailed in Hawaii for the assault of an off-duty police officer outside a nightclub.
Many critics of the federal government’s measures to address the binge-drinking problem among young people have questioned the effectiveness of the increase in excise on pre-mixed spirit drinks, labelling it a stunt and a revenue raiser. Within months of the introduction of the increased excise the distilling industry was claiming its own surveys of liquor shop owners were indicating that sales of pre-mixed drinks had decreased while sales of spirits had increased.
The Rudd government countered that such increases were seasonal and expected, coinciding with the onset of winter. Figures quoted in February this year by federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon indicated the measures were working far beyond original expectations, with alcopop sales falling by 40 per cent and overall spirits sales falling almost 10 per cent, seemingly disproving opponents’ claims that the measures were merely revenue raisers.
Perhaps the most significant indication that sales of pre-mixed drinks were declining was the move early this year by Diageo, the world’s largest alcohol company, to get around the negative effects of increased excises by introducing beer-based pre-mixed drinks to the Australian market. Such drinks were already available in overseas markets. Was this a move away from Gin Lane and back to Beer Street? Not really. The new Smirnoff Platinum drinks are colourless and have a citrus taste and, while they are not as sweet as other alcopops, they still contain 6 per cent alcohol. Because the excise on beer is less than that on spirits, it is also a cheaper drink.
Diageo’s introduction of these drinks to Australia can be seen, on the one hand, as a grudging admission by the alcohol industry that the Rudd government’s strategy was working. On the other hand, the move exposed a widely perceived weakness in the government’s approach: that it was targeting particular beverages and particular drinkers rather than the alcohol content itself.
Figures show that pre-mixed spirits in a can are the preferred drink of more than 60 per cent of male and female drinkers between ages 14 and 19. What is clear is the fact increased taxes alone will not prevent alcohol harms. Education and changes to drinking environments must be combined with economic influences to reduce the multiple harms and damages caused by alcohol.
Alcohol-fuelled violence has become the focus of concern, especially in NSW, where Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, a teetotaller and evangelical Christian, points out that extremely violent cities such as Los Angeles have fewer alcohol-related assaults than cities such as Newcastle and Sydney. Clearly Australia faces a huge problem that urgently needs to be addressed.
There is a good reason for NSW to be the focus of initiatives to foster responsible alcohol consumption. Of the 600 or so 24-hour drinking licences across Australia, 60 per cent are in NSW, most in Sydney and Newcastle.
Faced with the reality that more than 40,000 drinkers are admitted to NSW hospitals each year with alcohol-related injuries and illnesses, the state government has been exploring new measures, including a freeze on new 24-hour licences, the banning of glasses and 2am lockouts in violent and high-risk pubs, as well as calling for increased restrictions on alcohol advertising.
According to a federal government report, quoted by NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca, partial bans on alcohol advertising would reduce drinking by 16per cent, road fatalities by 10 per cent and the yearly social costs of alcohol abuse by $2.45 billion and road accidents by $310bn. A total ban on alcohol advertising in Australia was predicted to reduce drinking by 25 per cent, road fatalities by 30 per cent, the yearly social costs of alcohol abuse by $3.86bn, and road accidents by $960bn.
While these may seem like drastic measures to some, since 2000 the biggest increase in alcohol-related hospital admissions has been among 18 to 24-year-olds, with an overall increase of 130 per cent. Female admissions in that age group had increased by 200 per cent.
It is not surprising, then, that whereas advertising bans would have garnered little support in the not so distant past, according to a National Drug Strategy Household Survey released in November last year more than 72 per cent of respondents older than 14 supported a ban on all alcohol advertising before 9.30pm and more than half supported banning alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.
Sometime in the near future, 2008 and 2009 may be viewed as watershed years as far as alcohol and sport are concerned. High-profile athletes in all football codes, cricket, netball and swimming became front-page news for alcohol-fuelled misdemeanours. More than half the players reported drinking at levels defined by the World Health Organisation as hazardous; that is, more than six standard drinks in one sitting. The relationship between alcohol and sport is pivotal to our culture. It is not surprising that all the main sports codes in Australia have seen the writing on the wall and signed up to be part of the Rudd government’s $53 million national alcohol code for sports. The strategy includes advertising, community initiatives and preventive education.
The National Rugby League, the Australian Football League, Netball Australia, the Football Federation of Australia (soccer), the Australian Rugby Union and Cricket Australia have all supported a uniform code that asks players to behave in a dignified and professional manner when drinking and not to put themselves or others at risk of injury or social harm.
According to Andrew Demetriou, head of the AFL, promoting a responsible alcohol environment helps “ensure our clubs are family-friendly environments”. He takes pride in the leading role that Australian football players are taking in “driving the responsible alcohol message”, citing in particular the Just Think campaign at Geelong where AFL players led a campaign to promote a responsible alcohol attitude in response to problems at local nightclubs.
David Gallop, head of the NRL, who this year weathered a storm of alcohol-fuelled controversy, agrees that if sport addresses its own issues it can play a lead role in changing attitudes. Abuse of alcohol, he says, is “never someone else’s problem”, pointing out that several NRL players play a key role in spelling out the dangers of alcohol abuse and the distinction between responsible and irresponsible drinking.
Coupled with recent government moves to break the nexus between alcohol and sport, these are, perhaps, encouraging signs.
Australians are reflecting seriously on the use and misuse of alcohol and are moving beyond the divisive national stereotypes of boozers and wowsers towards a new era of social responsibility.
Edited extract from Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia by Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L.Jordan, is published by ABC Books. The cost is $35. Fitzgerald is a writer, broadcaster and columnist for The Australian, as well as a professorial fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Trevor Jordan is a senior lecturer in applied ethics at the Queensland University of Technology.