The New Prohibition. Australia’s battle against alcoholism, especially under-age and binge drinking, has been in the spotlight over the last weeks. The main targets have been (1) high-alcohol prepackaged drinks which are popular with younger drinkers, and (2) adults giving children alcohol. Proposed solutions have been stronger penalties for supplying alcohol to children, graphic warnings on packaging and even the idea of raising the legal drinking age to 21. In the NSW city of Newcastle, a recent administrative ruling has imposed suprisingly tight controls on licensed venues, including entry curfews and serving restrictions. The concerns are valid, but the message and solutions are often strong on control and weak on social initiative.
The frequency of teenagers drinking alcohol to excess, typically in concentrated sessions (binge drinking), has apparently reached at least 10% in 12-17 year olds, with 20% of 15-17 year olds binge drinking at least once a week. Certainly, the number of kids visibly drunk on late night public transport or leaving private parties seems higher than I can remember.
Advocates of a healthy approach to alcohol consumption in Australia speak of ‘European-style drinking culture’ or the ‘Mediterranean model’, where alcohol is often served as part of a meal and even relatively young family members are exposed to this ‘wholesome’ context for consuming alcohol. Critics of this approach claim that Australian mainstream (subtext: Anglo) culture is not predisposed to this pattern of drinking (due to different cultural uses and social behaviours) and some attention has been given to a report in 2007 that indicated a link between early exposure to alcohol and later binge drinking. The claim is that well intentioned parents wanting to socialise children to the presence of alcohol are in fact endangering their children, and responsible Australian parents should instead stigmatise alcohol so as to discourage any positive associations.
Stigmatising anything which forms part of normal adult activity is rarely successful. The same applies to traditional cultural behaviours. Providing a good example is surely a far better approach. I spent five years in a country which excels at stigmatising alcohol consumption whilst having a culture of severe, obsessive binge-drinking: Sweden. My time there changed my view of drinking fundamentally.
When I moved to Sweden in 1992, I had never seen drinking in such a ritualised, unmoderated form. I read frequent news stories of illegal stills being found by police. I saw friends of mine turn violent when they drank. I watched alcoholised fights break out on the cheap catamarans that plied the Malmö-Copenhagen route (a trip of just 45 minutes). I sat on the bus to work in the morning with well dressed business people stinking of stale or fresh spirit.
In a country where all forms of booze except low-alcohol beer (<3.5%) were only sold in sparsely distributed government shops (Systembolaget), all displayed behind glass and ordered at a counter, the volume of smashed glass and the stench of urine on a Sunday morning left you in no doubt as to how many people had queued at the local Systembolaget before closing time on Friday. Despite this, Sweden has relatively low per capita alcohol consumption (7 litres pure alcohol). Australians drink over 8 litres. Drinkers in France, Russia or Luxemburg consume considerably more. The discrepancy between, say, Sweden and Australia would appear to be that a smaller proportion of Swedes drink, but those who do really do!
Sweden has a long tradition of controlling alcohol consumption, aware of the social ills it causes. A strong temperance movement has existed for centuries, often closely affiliated with more conservative Christian groups (of which there are many). For a long period citizens needed to use alcohol ‘ration books’ as permits to buy some types of alcohol. Blacklists were maintained. An enduring memory of an early Swedish lesson was a story involving an elderly man being refused the right to buy vodka. His ration book had been annulled because he’d been charged with drunkenness. The social stigma surrounding alcohol was enormous and remains so.
None of this seemed to improve the psychology of alcohol consumption. Nordic taxes on alcohol are so high that alcohol tourism is common. Before Sweden and Finland joined the EU, cross-Baltic ferries were famous for the males and females who would drink themselves to a stupor on tax-free liquor before buying their maximum import quota and stumbling down the gangway to notionally dry (but rather dizzy) land.
On that dry land in the mid-90s, a modest pub might charge A$12 for an average draught beer. Many people would hastily drink two or three beers at a friend’s place before heading out for a night on the town, for fear of the prices once inside a venue.
Prior to moving to Sweden I had no particular opinion about drinking. I had been a mild drinker as a student in Australia, occasionally getting drunk socially and otherwise having a normal relationship with drink. In the early 90s, I developed a physical intolerance for alcohol (in essence, hangover-like symptoms within half an hour of a sip of beer or wine) and that made it impossible for me to imbibe any liquor. It was very bad timing. Life in Sweden meant constantly parrying suspicious or pressing questions about booze: ‘are you sure you don’t want a drink?’, ‘are you a prohibitionist?’, ‘what about a light beer?’. I never worked out which was worse there – not drinking or not eating seafood!
Many years have passed, and my body now tolerates alcohol fine in careful moderation. My attitude to drinking, however, has changed. I’m exceedingly uneasy around even moderately drunk people. I detest enthusiastic heavy drinking, and I rarely have any desire to step foot inside a bar or pub.
On the other hand, I don’t oppose drinking. I dislike the curiously fatalist view of some health industry commentators who believe the Mediterranean model can’t work here because we have the wrong drinking culture. That seems a neat way of promoting prohibition over behavioural modification. When responsible parents tell journalists that they promote healthy attitudes to alcohol by permitting moderate consumption on special occasions, their motives are worthy but the approach fits the vodka-belt mode of drinking quite well. If you associate alcohol primarily with celebration (a particularly common setting for excessive drinking) then you just perpetuate the unusual role of drinking.
I certainly feel that alcopops and ready-to-drink (RTD) mixes have absolutely no place on the market as they facilitate casual, effortless alcohol consumption, especially in young drinkers or people with drinking problems. I believe that adults who supply kids with certain forms of alcohol should face severe penalties, especially if they then leave the kids unsupervised.
However, the battle against binge-drinking won’t be won through blind restriction and lecturing. So why not try behaviour modification in the home and in restaurants – the two places where ‘normalised’ drinking needs to find a place. Moderate consumption needs to be dull and normal. Make limited consumption of wine or beer the norm at everyday meals. Encourage restaurants to offer house wines in small carafes. Our wine-drinking-as-connoisseur behaviour perhaps even undermines the hope for normalising mild drinking because it makes wine too special. The mixed bag of wines that serve as house wines in France and southern Europe moves the emphasis away from vineyards, vintages and restaurant markups and just makes wine another incidental drink with a simple meal. Something tells me Australia’s restaurateurs would baulk at a loss of income from their winelist margins.
I doubt there’s the will to take constructive action on alcohol in Australia. There are too many parties whose profits depend on current consumption patterns. It’s probably too hard to convince generations of celebratory-drinking Australians that things can be done differently. And policy-makers aren’t so keen on nuance at the moment. It’s easier to tut-tut, blindly castigate parents, and ban a nice Cointreau on the rocks after 10pm.