A lot is said about Australia’s drinking culture and attitudes.
April marked two years since my last drink. During this time, the rate of public discussion about alcohol, especially in relation to young people, has increased.
This confuses me.
I gave up drinking when I was 19, much to the shock of my peers, and my parents did not believe me until I passed the six-month mark. I didn’t have a problem with alcohol at all, but during a downswing in my life I decided to challenge myself to one dry month.
I was so good at it. A sense of achievement – one that had immediate benefits to my wallet and energy – overcame me.
Australia does have an issue with alcohol. It is deep and real. It is more pervasive and subversive than what we read or hear about. The primary discussion around alcohol naively focuses on young people.
It is obvious that young people are the most public with their excessive alcohol consumption, which does not mean they should bear the responsibility of safe drinking themselves.
The amount of times we walk into an event for work and expect alcohol to be served is astounding. At events held for work outside of regular hours, there is an expectation that alcohol will be present.
Alcohol guarantees attendance for so many people.
There are two major parts to the Australian drinking culture: assumption and prestige.
Australia has an assumption that everyone drinks and this starts early in life. All you need to do is walk around our secondary schools and hear the discussions on Monday morning about who got so drunk off two cruisers on Saturday night that they couldn’t walk. If you do not hear it, host a party for 16 year olds and you’ll see what I mean.
It does not end there. Alcohol consumption takes a step up when we turn eighteen. Alcohol companies seemingly prey on this group. Large groups of people caught in a pack mentality, all trying to outdo each other – what could go wrong?
These are all side issues. The assumption that everyone drinks and alcohol is a good thing really sets in at the workplace. Friday afternoons, Christmas parties and the ends of difficult days all have one thing in common: the presence of alcohol.
This culture that alcohol is simply a part of, or adjunct to, many work environments is against any basis of a duty of care, and some employers are realising this.
It is here that people push their limits. “Just have one more” is often touted after who knows how many rounds of drinks. The sub-culture of alcohol at work is steeped in masculinity and ideas of success. Seeing who can hold their alcohol best while consuming excessive amounts is commonplace.
Building on this is the idea of prestige. Grey Goose, Moët, Chandon, Hendricks. All brands we know well. Alcohol brings a sense of status. While we might be equals at work or fit into a hierarchy, alcohol changes that. Alcohol sees us compare our knowledge and what we consider “reasonable” in front of peers and colleagues. This happens through a lens of class and financial capacity. It is focused on those who are midway through their career.
Alcohol has wide-ranging economic and social impacts. Alcohol is often present in domestic violence, poverty and homelessness, and under financial stress. The reality is that the misuse of alcohol costs $2.9 billion to the criminal justice system, $1.6 billion to the health system and to Australian productivity, the impact is around the $6 billion mark (from Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, April 2013.)
Dealing with alcohol and its ramifications is beyond something that those finding their feet should deal with. We all know that the best leaders set high standards.
I do not think that alcohol is inherently wrong. I see many people enjoy the privilege of alcohol without taking it too far.
However, we cannot separate alcohol into its positive and negative aspects. It brings joviality and relaxation, as well as its dark side – addiction and emotional distress.
Like every right, access to alcohol comes with responsibility. I have given up alcohol for now, that is my choice. If we are going to get serious about alcohol in Australia we need to look at our own habits, no matter who we are.