Matthew Lawry reckons it’s time we had a dedicated conversation about changing the way we conceptualise drinking in Australia…and it’s one that should begin with the Government.

“Is drinking beer your hobby?”

It’s a peculiar question to ask, but it’s one a drive-through bottle shop posed to passing commuters on a large sign. Hobby, as a word, has always been problematic for me. More specifically, what is and what isn’t a hobby? When does a fleeting interest or wistful pastime suddenly become this defined, tightly-packaged noun: hobby? I always considered hobbies to be things like snowboarding, collecting train sets or tap dancing. Brewing beer I’d also place in the hobby basket, but drinking it?

I found this piece of advertising jarring. It was, in some way, not right. Upon locating a dictionary definition, I found that a hobby was, “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.” Well, by that definition, drinking can be a hobby. But by the same definition, so can taking heroin, or smoking cigarettes. Should any of them be classified as hobbies?

For the sake of transparency, I’d like to make it clear that I am not some sort of teetotaling, coconut water-swilling bastion for abstinence. In fact, I’m the opposite. I’m a “hobby drinker”, if I allow that definition to fly, which I don’t. The hobby drinker is positioned somewhere between drinking the right amount and drinking far too much. The connotations of the word when coupled with drinking are far too dangerous. It’s the laconic terminology, symptomatic of a broader societal indifference towards drinking in Australia that is problematic. People are passionate about hobbies; in fact people can become obsessed with them. The problem with this is if you become obsessed with your hobby and your hobby is drinking, you’ve become an alcoholic without even realising.

This is just one example of advertising in Australia that glorifies drinking and the culture around it. It’s time we had a dedicated conversation about changing the way we conceptualise alcohol in Australia. Not a conversation about binge drinking or alcohol related violence or underage drinking or looking out for your mates when they’re drinking around a body of water, just drinking. It seems when it comes to drinking, you can’t get the burger on its own, you’ve got to get chips and fries with that. It’s time to end the meal deal philosophy.

As the government launches their new Quit campaign for smoking, outlining the plethoric range of cancers you can contract, cigarettes remain in plain packaging and smokers shunned to places where they are seen, but not heard. Meanwhile, the alcohol industry is having a pretty easy time of it when it comes to advertising regulations. It seems as though big booze companies and bottle shops can encourage and promote “hobby drinking” as long as they tack on an “Always drink responsibly” disclaimer. In other words, drink up, but don’t take your hobby too seriously.

The government is yet to come to the party. Television viewers are peppered with anti-gambling ads and campaigns that highlight the terrors of ice addiction. Marijuana remains illegal. What’s confounding is that the government remains pretty taciturn when it comes to drinking. After a relatively feeble campaign on binge drinking that lasted two years between 2008 and 2010, in 2014 through alcohol industry body DrinkWise Australia they launched an advertising campaign that, at least on face value, seemed to encourage drinking. The central message was to “drink properly”. Advertisements suggested avoiding drinking like “an amateur” and finding your individual “realm of drinking excellence”. The campaign was condemned by professional public health advocates.

Maybe the government thinks the facts around drinking are too scary to share, maybe they don’t want to encroach on the romantic concept of the “Australian way”, the “hobby drinker”. Maybe they’re just scared about missing out on the $15.63 in excise tax they pick up for every case of beer sold.

Well here are the facts about the most widely used drug in Australia, from one “hobby drinker” to another. In the time it took to write this article, a person died from alcohol related illness in Australia – that’s around 5554 annually. Drinking excessively causes cancer, just like smoking. Alcohol costs the Australian economy more than $15 billion dollars annually, much more than is retrieved in tax.

So, is drinking a hobby?

Maybe it’s time for the Government to answer that question.

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