Changing the picture

When asked to describe the Australian culture, it seems that for many Australians, what comes to mind is thongs, beer and barbecues. That definition seems to suggest we are a nation set on fun, frothies and food. Fitting.

Be it celebrating sporting events, religious festivals, birthdays, Australia day, ANZAC day, the arts, or New Year’s Day – Australia is known for being a celebratory, fun loving culture. Underlying the celebratory spirit are the values – such as mate-ship, family, community, fair go, tolerance – which we embrace.

While these values largely define Australians, there is a less admirable, but widely accepted aspect of celebration which has become almost synonymous with the Australian culture. Alcohol – the much loved celebratory beverage. Alcohol is not a new social sensation. It has steadily woven itself into the fabric of our society, and largely become a common household commodity and social stipulation.

Australians have a complex relationship with alcohol; as highlighted again in today’s (1 June 2017) release of the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey results.

On the one hand, 34.7 per cent of Australians correctly recognise alcohol is the drug that causes the most deaths. And more than one in five Australians (22 per cent) reported being the victim of an alcohol-related incident.

Yet Australians continue to drink at risky levels.

And while young adults are drinking less, and fewer 12-17 years olds are taking up drinking, older Australians are picking up the slack, with more people in their 50’s consuming 11 or more standard drinks in one drinking occasion in 2016 than in 2013.

The widespread normalisation of booze is almost intoxicating. Australia’s most used drug has seeped into, and stained our culture.

It has even received high level endorsement by our ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

He, who was recently immortalised with his own beer. The founders of Hawkes Beer Co said that having Bob on the beer was about the “values he embodies, like giving back to community and looking after mates”. To sweeten the endorsement and make it more socially corporate responsible; a percentage of beer sale profits are helping rural Landcare programs.

This is the booze soaked world we live in.

One in which Bob is branded a quintessential Aussie legend, for breaking beer-drinking records and drinking at the cricket.

The very same world in which  AFL player Dan Hannebery – who quit alcohol to improve his health in late 2016 – was criticised, and told to “get back on the sauce” to improve his game.

In a society that values diverse lifestyle beliefs and practices, there still seems to be a lack of understanding, awareness or value of alcohol related harms. Could this be the result of powerful tangible forces, such as alcohol marketing, price of alcohol, hours of availability of alcohol, or intangible forces, such as alcohol habits, customs, images and norms?

It seems that Australia has formed an unhealthy alcohol addiction, to the point of largely overlooking and excusing our drinking behaviours.

Take for example, the Stawell Beer Mile and Grapest 5K wine-tasting fun run. What is not attractive (and Australian!) about a community fun run with free drinks along the way? After all, these events bring people together to enjoy alcohol and athletics together, for ‘fun, laughs and community building’. It seems no one blinks an eye.

Although history shows that drinking practices are highly modifiable, the liberalisation of alcohol – and the lack of generational questioning of the necessity of alcohol – have allowed alcohol to dig its deadly hooks deep into Australia’s very existence.

As a result, its removal will not be pleasant or popular. After all, if drinking is the norm, and I drink responsibly and don’t misuse alcohol, then I am not part of the alcohol problem.

But what happens when Australians don’t take responsibility for their drinking behaviour (and are instead told to drink responsibly), ignore the negative health, social and economic impacts, or are blinded to the harmful drug that affects so many others? Nothing good.

This picture needs to change.

One common myth is that alcohol is a benign product that everyone uses – much more than I do – so why should I listen to messages about risk? Well, the evidence of adverse social consequences is rather overwhelming and far reaching – both personally and corporately. Reports from police, ambulances, child protection services of anti-social and dangerous behaviour, as a result of alcohol consumption, flood the media almost daily.

Another myth, is how alcohol enhances and builds social relationships. Up until someone turns down a drink of course, and the social stigma kicks in and socialising can become a burden. Been there? Seen it unfold? Saying no to alcohol is a positive defence, not an offence. So normalised is alcohol, that changing the idea of booze-free socialising seems ludicrous.

Is it really necessary to drink to solve problems, or play drinking games to build team spirit? Do our kids need alcohol advertising splashed over sporting events and players?

Alcohol undeniably lessens inhibitions, but it also impacts families, destroys lives, contributes to diseases, and has cost the country billions in lost productivity.

Perhaps the consequences for anti-social behaviour while being intoxicated need to be tightened.

Perhaps the social acceptance, promotion and availability of alcohol in Australia needs to be challenged. And perhaps the question ‘why’ we are drinking needs to be better addressed.

After all, for generations, what has been communicated to our children, is that alcohol is an essential element of what it means to have fun, to be included, to be initiated, and to be Australian.

To change this picture, we need to generate more messages that generate discussion and consideration about alcohol’s relevance, if any, in our society. The risks and harms of alcohol are real.

Australians could do with an attitude adjustment to alcohol, setting examples that can be admired and followed by our children.

Perhaps there is reason for optimism in today’s AIHW Household Survey results, in that the decade-long trend of young people’s declining level of drinking might become a new norm. However, this would need to be sustained for many years to come as these young people age, form families and maintain reduced level of drinking, which offset the drinking patterns of baby boomers and Gen Xs.

Only then, might this mean a new norm has been established!

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Sonja Kama

Sonja is a Communication Officer at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). She has a background in communications, marketing and international development.

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