A personal perspective on binge-drinking and social policy on alcohol


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.

7 thoughts on “A personal perspective on binge-drinking and social policy on alcohol”

  1. Some interesting thoughts here, particularly your comparison to Sweden. Having spent large amounts of time in Denmark I can confirm that the strict licensing in Sweden is not entirely effective – it just moves the problem.

    Swedes now catch the train to Copenhagen from Malmo – this can even happen for a night on the town now (ironically some people now live in Sweden and commute to Denmark) and the ferry terminal at Helsinborg (and the other side, Helsinor) are a sight to see with swedes and the carts of “full strength” beer – prized spoils from their viking raids!!!

  2. Glad to hear that the picture I painted is still the status quo. I hadn’t even thought about the prospect of trains full of drunken Swedes now that the bridge exists on that route! An enduring memory of Danes in Germany and Swedes in Denmark is exactly what you describe: men of all ages loaded down with slabs and slabs of beer (as many as they could carry) staggering out of ferry terminals.

  3. Although we shouldn’t forget people in their 30s, 40s or 50s binge drinking. Just pop down to the Albert Park Hotel and observe. Also note how few inebriated people are refused service. A visit to the Belgium Beer cafe is also worthy of an observation as it only sells beer and wine and no alcopops.

  4. cover for extreme over consumption under the guise of, lets say, ‘Learnedness’.
    I’m sure we’ve all been privvy when some wine ‘Bookends of Knowledge’ have just tipped over the edge into unaceptable behaviour that leaves one scratching ones head.
    Dont get me wrong, I’ve been there too but I am too becoming more aware that this is a malady that strikes across our whole strata here & isnt just about young binge drinking Corey’s.

  5. You’ll notice that I don’t restrict my perspective to young drinkers (though certainly it’s the primary topic of debate at the moment). And if we want to take the drinking controls one step further, then why not place higher taxes on alcohol served outside of dining establishments?… Alas, too easy to subvert, and still not an encouragement to change behaviour. Excessive drinking exists within any social framework. Reducing the ‘social need’ for it and the acceptability of it is the most important approach.

  6. Well this is a subject that is hitting very close to my home at the moment.

    I will give you some insight to what our family is like. I have two teenage children who started high school this year. Our family really doesn’t drink alcohol. It has never been an important part of our lives. Yes a glass of a nice red that I might pick up when we are having a cheese platter or something special for dinner and that is about it. I don’t get drunk nor does my husband. We are just not into feeling hung over like when we were younger. Most of my friends and their families are the same. I am ethnic and so is a friend of mine and her husband and we both have teenage children. We have been always of the mindset that on a special occasion say Christmas or a Wedding we have let them have a sip of red or a 1/4 of a glass of bubbly. None of our children seem to care about alcohol or have a weird facination for it. Now I consider myself to be an exceptional parent and I have children who talk to me about everything and trust me.

    So here comes the hitting home part. My son vary rarely goes and sleeps over at other peoples houses and I know where they are all the time. They dont hang out in shopping malls and they are kept occupied and their school work is in order. But last weekend my son slept over his mates place. He is just about to turn 14. The day after he went to school and I got a phonecall from the principle. Him and his mate were caught in the toilets at lunchtime drinking a can of beer that his mate had brought to school. 3 days suspended at home. I was mortified and stunned at how this could possibly be. My son explained to me that he had a sip of the beer and it tasted gross so he spat it out. He then told me that his mate apparently steals beer from his step father on a regular basis and sculls it down like a real pro. He had felt pressured to try the beer for fear he would be put down by his friends. When he was at his friends place the night before apparently the other boys parents are involved in some type of country walking group that gets together once a week on a week night to get hammered, they all put money in everyweek to pay for the beer. The boys step father the previous day had taken them to the liquor shop and bought 100 cartons of beer for this club. Had them unload it from his van and start unpacking it, putting it into eskies with ice. About 70 people came over to their house and drank all night. This kid apparently drinks behind his parents backs all the time.

    Now my son did not have the opportunity to tell me about it as he was at this childs house and had gone to school with him. He certainly has learnt his lesson and I hope to goodness that this never happens again. He wont be sleeping over this boys house again nor will he be associating with this child again. I have not banned him from spending time with this child at school, I cant and I have no control over that, but my son has made the decision to not spend time with him on his own. So I hope that means I have been a good parent and that my son just made a stupid mistake like lots of kids do.

    I don’t think it matters what rules or legislation is in place. People are going to do what they are going to do. All I can do as a parent is make sure my children are informed and hope that influences like these other stupid parents dont come into my childrens lives very often. Children do silly things and make mistakes as part of growing up and learning about life. The emphasis should be more on educating parents to have an open line of communication with their children. The problem is lots of parents dont talk to their kids even about how their day was. I know this because every weekend my childrens friends are always sleeping over and they always say to me, Amelita I wish my parents ate dinner with us or I wish my mum and dad talked to me about my life.

    So that tells me that unless we change parents attitudes and get them caring about what their children have to say and listen to them we are always going to be faced with all sorts of influences, legislation or no legislation.

    Gosh I hope all that makes sense?

  7. THat’s a really powerful post, Amelita. Thank you! Parents can influence the behaviour of their children, but of course they have to change their own behaviour too, and that’s where the parents of your son’s mate have failed.

    I once had a client, 18yo, who had concentration problems… why? Quite possibly because he was coming home from work and drinking 5-9 tinnies per night with his dad. Adult bonding? Bloody hell. That’s when I realised just how far from the alco-mainstream I was!

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