Drink Culture leaves a bad hangover

Published in the Courier Mail 27 Feb 08

PRIME Minister Kevin Rudd was right when he said recently that alcohol abuse was a growing problem and that the “epidemic of binge drinking” he had witnessed was “not good”.

Interestingly, our Prime Minister’s remarks make for a fascinating juxtaposition with those of someone in the alcohol service industry. The owner of the Normanby Hotel (in Queensland), defending his hotel’s record on public safety, was recently quoted as saying: “If we’re so bad, why are we so popular?”

It’s not rocket science to realise that popularity is not necessarily an indication of whether something is good. All it shows is that it is popular. After all, smoking is popular. So is junk food. But neither of them is “good”.

Furthermore, being good doesn’t always guarantee popularity – if that was the case, carrots and celery would be in much higher demand. And why do we tend to lean towards popular – even when we know that, sadly, carrots are better for us than chocolate.

One thing our society is generally good at, supported by underlying philosophies such as individualism and materialism, is elevating short-term pleasure over long-term benefits. Hence, a smoker will tell you that they know cigarettes are bad for them but they still smoke.

It’s why I choose a chocolate bar instead of an apple for a mid-afternoon snack, or sleep in instead of getting up and exercising. I know what is good, but the good is not always popular. And being popular does not make it good – no matter what the owner of the Normanby may hope.

And so we find that alcohol abuse and binge drinking have become popular, and is a fast-growing problem for Australian society.

Figures recently quoted in The Courier-Mail, and sourced from the National Health and Medical Research Council, suggest there are staggeringly high levels of binge drinking occurring in young Australians. More than 40 per cent of 16 to 17-year-old drinkers consume alcohol at hazardous levels.

Some dismiss those who are warning of the dangers of youth drinking patterns, and argue that young people have been drinking illicitly for generations. There is a level of truth to that, however, the nature and environment in which alcohol consumption is taking place now is fundamentally different from even five years ago.

So what can we do? Part of the problem lies in the fact that the nature of alcohol being consumed by young drinkers has changed drastically. Young drinkers are not experimenting with beer or wine. They are choosing spirits and mixers, and the pre-mixed drinks such as UDLs and Vodka Cruisers are hugely popular. When alcohol doesn’t taste like alcohol, such as with drinks like these targeting the teenage market, you get young people underestimating the effect of what they are drinking. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Of course, during the teenage years, and early 20s, many people are also struggling with issues of identity, insecurity, peer pressure and fear of rejection. A substance, which promises – even temporarily – to remove inhibitions, embolden the drinker and include them in a socially popular activity, is one that is difficult to resist.

Further complexities arise when you consider the social environment in which young people are being raised. Over-arching community ideas, such as short-term gratification, throwing off restraint and self-determination all combine to create a cocktail of impending disaster.

If we care about reducing the binge drinking happening among our young people, we should consider carefully the words of Geoff Munro, spokesman for the Australian Drug Foundation. He said: “The whole culture impels people into believing that drinking is important, that it should be a part of every social occasion.”

We know this to be true – so how do we expect young people to “just say no” if the rest of society is saying yes. What can we do? Well, in a recent interview, Munro encourages us to “re-assess the role alcohol plays or should play in society”.

That is something that Rudd and Health Minister Nicola Roxon can take a governmental approach to. But it’s also something we can all do – as individuals.

After all, I could think about how my implicit assumptions regarding alcohol create the shared community experience we have and how I could help bring about a change personally. When you think about it, that’s a really good idea – and perhaps, we could even help make it a popular one.

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer.

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