Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Social acceptance of alcohol allows us to ignore its harms

Most of us forget that alcohol is a drug so when asked to name drug-related problems, we tend to think of illegal drugs such as cannabis or heroin. But most of us drink, and drinking is an accompaniment…

The increasing liberalisation of alcohol normalises drinking and consumption becomes enmeshed in the daily fabric of life. Image from shutterstock.com

Most of us forget that alcohol is a drug so when asked to name drug-related problems, we tend to think of illegal drugs such as cannabis or heroin. But most of us drink, and drinking is an accompaniment to a growing array of activities.

People enjoy alcohol for a number of reasons, such as its symbolic meaning (celebration, commiseration, the end of the working day), its taste, the sense of identity and belonging we experience from drinking with our friends, as well as its physical effects – although we may not necessarily want to think we use it as an intoxicant.

When the fact that alcohol causes harm is acknowledged, language conveniently distances us from asking whether our own drinking is worth thinking about. Terms such as “alcohol abuse” or “alcohol misuse” reinforce the idea that risky drinking and related harm are something that happens to others – to a small minority of different people.

And if drinking is the social norm, those who have problems must surely be unusual. This dissuades many from perceiving and taking action to reduce alcohol-related risk. It also allows us to demand that government responses target a small group of “alcohol abusers” and leave the rest of us to enjoy drinking.

While quite a lot of people who drink alcohol experience some adverse consequences, at least on occasion, not many register this as reason enough to think about their drinking habit.

There has been a lot of media commentary about the “binge drinking culture” of young Australians and a common demand is that we educate people out of this risk. But various models and theories about drinking cultures, health beliefs and behavioural change suggest this alone might not do the job. The increasing liberalisation of alcohol (more hours, more outlets, more places we expect to drink) normalises drinking and consumption becomes enmeshed in the daily fabric of life.

Young people are influenced by what they think their peers are doing (and many overestimate how much their peers are drinking) and by expectations about the positive things that drinking alcohol will achieve. They tend to be less concerned about potential negative outcomes and are not always motivated by the same issues and concerns that influence older people.

Even when young (and older) people accept that there are risks from drinking alcohol, self-serving optimism can counter perceived personal relevance – I might accept that risky drinking will increase the chance of an accident for other people, but not me. And anyway, if I believe that alcohol is a benign product, that everyone uses it (probably more often than me) why would I attend to messages about risk?

Even if I did pay attention, I might tell myself such messages must be for other people who are different, who drink more, or in a different manner. If I accept the notion that there is some risk, but find that taking action is demanding, I may make little effort to change.

Alcohol-related health information should be delivered in a way that generates discussion and consideration of its personal relevance, so it’s not easily dismissed as an issue for other people. But this, on it’s own, won’t be enough. We also need to respond to the way that increasing availability and promotion contribute to alcohol becoming enmeshed in day-to-day living, reminding ourselves that it may be something we enjoy but still carries risks.

Finally, we should review our tolerance of intoxicated behaviour. Over 40 years ago, the authors of the wonderfully titled book, Drunken Comportment, observed that alcohol intoxication is sometimes used as a passport to otherwise unacceptable behaviour. Changing our tolerance for alcohol-related anti-social and aggressive behaviour might help reduce the large numbers of Australians exposed to harm from other peoples’ drinking.

We need to discuss the availability and promotion of alcohol in our community in the context of it being a drug with potential for harm. The enjoyment of alcohol for those of us who do drink doesn’t have to come at such a high price.

This is the second part of our series looking at alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Part One: A brief history of alcohol consumption in Australia

Part Three: My drinking, your problem: alcohol hurts non-drinkers too

Part Four: Alcohol-fuelled violence on the rise despite falling consumption

Part Five: ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now’: alcohol advertising and sport

Part Six: Advertising’s role in how young people interact with alcohol

Part Seven: Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco – boozem buddies?

Part Eight: Explainer: foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Part Nine: ‘Valuable label real estate’ and alcohol warning labels

Part Ten: Forbidden fruit: are children tricked into wanting alcohol?

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    "... alcohol intoxication is sometimes used as a passport to otherwise unacceptable behaviour."
    Whether as "passport to" or "excuse for" unacceptable behaviour, alcohol (or any other form of intoxication) should not be a defence or mitigation before the law for that behaviour. If a person, say, commits assault while intoxicated, the fact that they (voluntarily) consumed the intoxicant should not reduce probability of conviction, penalties or opprobrium: and second and third offences while intoxicated should receive escalating penalties because they know they do this when they consume the intoxicant and consumed it anyway (tacitly, intending to commit the offence).

    report
    1. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Anyone who has lived in countries below the butter line (south of France, Italy, Greece, Spain) will have noticed something. While alcohol is freely available and drunk with pleasure and enthusiasm very rarely - in my case in Spain never - do you see the kind of violent aggressive and out of control drunkenness you see habitually in Australia, Germany. America, Britain and Scandinavia. I might add especially Australia.

      In my Spanish village - I lived there on and off for ten years - I could buy brandy at the baker, the bars hardly ever closed in summer, and we left our then only daughter for baby sitting at our local bar.

      So what is it? what is the cultural difference?

      I'm Irish Australian. Mostly, i try to drink like Spaniard. But on occasions - rarer as I get older - I drink like an Irishman. Two entirely different ways of using the drug. Have there been any cross-cultural studies of alcohol use? And if not why not?

      report
    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to John Newton

      Agreed - this suggests that it's the culture more than the substance.

      Is everything we ingest that can alter mood and behaviour a "drug" ?Caffeine? Cocoa?

      It would be great to see an article that explores the difference between alcohol-social and alcohol-violent societies.

      report
    3. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      A good point Dennis, changing the voluntary ingestion of alcohol (or any other proscribed substance known to adversely affect behaviour) from a mitigating circumstance to an aggravating circumstance would allow judges to impose 'heavy end' sentences on convicted offenders rather than the 'lighter' sentences garnered by mitigation ... and a competent defence lawyer.

      Then, go further and have the judge rule that the convicted offender personally pay for any personal or property damage caused while under the influence of the proscribed substance.

      Alcohol is used by many persons as an escape from perceived stresses. That does NOT allow those persons to inflict damage on other citizens with impunity ... as happens at present.

      report
    4. Ian Jessup

      Retrenched Journalist

      In reply to John Newton

      The English-speaking world has had puritanical mantras and so-called Victorian-era 'values' shoved down our throats for centuries... and the reaction of the masses is to do the opposite... which is exactly what the hypocritical elites have done throughout history. I lived in Germany for a year as an exchange student and to have a (as in 1) glass of wine or beer at dinner was the norm. It's a different culture, one that does not glorify intoxication. How do we address that here?

      report
    5. Greg Flint

      Project Manager

      In reply to John Newton

      Exactly right. That is the same as my experience, after living in Barcelona (5 years), then Manchester (2 years). In Manchester, I was the Project Manager for the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003 for Manchester City Council. The received wisdom in Australia seems to push us in the same direction as what has happened in England - I suppose because Australia is still effectively Little Britain. In Spain and France (and even in Germany, in my experience), and in Beijing, you NEVER see the set-tos in the street like you do in Britain and Australia. I haven't spent long enough in Scandinavia to comment. The difference IS the culture, and this manifests itself in a number of ways. Alcohol-drama is not cause-effect, but ONLY a correlation.

      report
    6. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Ian Jessup

      Having spend my childhood in Germany, I can vouch that alcoholism is (or at least was then) a problem - the difference was that it seemed more often practiced in private settings than here - it was often downplayed as being jovial - the happy drunk - but from memory, drinkers could also become unruly or violent at times. Having said that, the glass of wine/beer with a restaurant meal is quite normal and not the setting for public drunkenness in general.

      report
    7. Greg Flint

      Project Manager

      In reply to Greg Flint

      Further to this, the phrase 'anti-social behaviour' appeared in Australian media a few years ago. The next thing is for that to become Anti-Social Behaviour (with capital letters), and then we get something like the British ASBO or Anti-Social Behaviour Order. It's kind of a preemptive strike, and probably will have some effect reducing crime statistics here in the short term, but the social malaise will continue. It might even worsen as a result. I haven't heard of anything like ASBOs in Australia yet, but I think it's reasonable to assume that it's coming.

      report
    8. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Suzy, I don't know anything about normal pub licensing laws in Germany, so I wonder if they have the late night/24 hour opening, even for 18 year olds that we have implemented here over the past decade or so?

      report
    9. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Newton

      John the difference between the northern Germanic peoples (British,northern European, and Australian) and the southern Greco-Roman peoples is a very interesting cleavage that I had not considered might still be alive today, and expressed in different drinking cultures.

      report
    10. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Greg Flint

      Greg, always be alert whenever the "public health" lobby starts wading into a debate demanding more power and taxpayer's money.

      report
    11. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Alcohol laws are much more liberal, alcohol is available at the supermarket and in most restaurants - there are no licensed and unlicensed choices like here and BYO does not exist, pub opening hours I am not familiar with but at least in Berlin there was always somewhere open at any time.

      report
    12. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Suzy, i have never spent any more than a couple of weeks in Germany, and I did attend the famous Apfelwein district outside of Frankfurt - saw many happy drunks but no violence. However, in Spain, the Germans were almost - but not quite - as bad as the English. Perhpas teir behaviour changes away from home?

      report
    13. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to John Newton

      Quite possibly. I would also suggest that some violence at home will be hidden from public view - when those happy drunks come home, they may not always be so happy.

      report
  2. Tobin Richard

    Software Development Manager

    I have often wondered why people almost always say "drugs and alcohol" and rarely "drugs including alcohol" or "drugs such as alcohol" which would be more honest. Ideally we would reach the point where people could simply say "drugs" and be understood to mean all drugs.

    Of course, changing the attitude that allows people to lean on the arbitrary line between what's a legal intoxicant and what's not leads to lots of uncomfortable questions. The topic of how drugs are classified are controlled is fraught with danger for any politician that might want to push for an actual evidence based approach.

    In Britain, the case of David Nutt's firing for providing an objective scientific scale for drug classification has shown that not only are scientific credentials not required but that they will actually place your job in peril.

    report
  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Interesting.

    Public drunkenness is an obvious problem, so we tend to focus on that.

    Just from my experience (so no sound evidence here) people I know who've suffered physically, socially and financially from alcoholism were brought up in strict prohibitionist families, and are very good at hiding their consumption.

    Is there anything in that?

    report
    1. Gordon Smith

      Private citizen

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I doubt it James. Having grown up and working in areas and with people where the opposite of strict prohibition occurs and there is plenty of problems with alcohol in very liberal families as well - I think it is relatively universal.
      I suspect that assertion is a simplistic one that fits your preferred narrative.

      report
    2. J Hancox

      logged in via email @msn.com

      In reply to James Jenkin

      My experience with those that I know who are self-identified alcoholics is that more came from families where there is some history of alcoholism. There are also a few that come from families where alcohol consumption was rare or completely absent, but they are the minority (going by my own anecdotal experience).

      I am a tee-totaller and have been for a long time after I came to the conclusion that alcohol was adding nothing positive to my life (I understand that it offers enhancing qualities to…

      Read more
  4. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Best doco is John Marsden's 'Do I Drink Too Much?' (BBC, has been on SBS). Covers lots of points crucial to understanding ethanol's grip on humanity.
    Anyone else seen it?

    report
  5. Ian Jessup

    Retrenched Journalist

    Chilling 4 Corners last night about alcohol abuse among young adults. If judges started delivering maximum sentences for drunken thuggery it might start to change things. Let's imagine for a moment that pubs and clubs are actually interested in providing a safe social drinking environment (as opposed to making a motza on grog): if they put signs up welcoming people but alerting them to the fact that drunken thuggery will get you 5 years in jail (and we all know the consequences of that for a young male)... would that make a difference? I believe that so-called energy drinks are the trigger for the increasing violence. Young males and females down a couple of caffeine hits, get drunk, then suddenly think they're Stephen Segal and want to fight the whole world.

    report
    1. J Hancox

      logged in via email @msn.com

      In reply to Ian Jessup

      I know someone in law enforcement and they tell me that energy drinks are part of the increasing alcohol-related violence in young people - the major contributing factor being that they enable folks to be awake and acting out long after they would normally pass out from intoxication. Another scourge is the drug ice which also has stimulant effects and is terrible on it's own let alone mixed with copious alcohol.

      report
  6. John R. Sabine

    Scholar-at-Large

    Clearly most particpants in this alcohol conversation have ignored my admonition from yesterday. If one wants to include any substance, including alcohol, within the category of "drug", then one must first define the term "drug". I am waiting, as I have been for a long time, to find a satisfactory definition.

    report
    1. Greg Flint

      Project Manager

      In reply to John R. Sabine

      Alcohol is a psychoactive drug, and I agree that the term 'drugs' includes alcohol. I'll go with consensus on any further definition of 'drug' and whether it includes (possibly) non-psychoactive chemicals, such as caffeine and nicotine.

      report
    2. J Hancox

      logged in via email @msn.com

      In reply to John R. Sabine

      I class anything that has psychoactive effects as a drug, including alcohol and caffeine. Under this fairly strict classification I suppose that even chocolate could count as a drug, one that I use strictly for medicinal purposes of course.

      report
  7. John Hopkins

    Social Engineer

    The dumber a person is, the more Idiot Juice (Alcohol) they consume. THE most stupid of all is the dimwit who goes to the pub to get drunk while watching Football & Gambling. Dimwits.

    report
    1. Greg Flint

      Project Manager

      In reply to John Hopkins

      Please send me a link to a decent study that links intelligence to alcohol consumption, because I don't have that impression at all. I have the impression that there's absolutely no correlation. Thanks.

      report