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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?