Alcohol, An Australian Primer

At low levels alcohol is a drug that can be a positive social lubricant. That is alcohol can be fun! Low levels is relative.  Advertising shows us about just how much fun we can have. (I can have so much fun my tongue can remove itself from my face and get beer by itself – yes this actually happens in an ad.) After being fun alcohol quickly becomes a problem fueling conflict, violence, accidents, poorly judged risk taking (see accidents), depression and addiction. Government advertising warns us about excessive alcohol and that you are a ‘bloody idiot’ if you drink and drive. Most people seem to agree. Despite the down sides of this drug, alcohol lies at the heart of social life for a vast number of Australians. Alcohol availability will feature heavily in adult decision making when planning entertainment – “Who is bringing the drinks?”, “Can we get a drink?” etcetera.

Youths and Alcohol: Alcohol is available to people 18 years and older. Many, if not most, start drinking younger. Parents seem confused about how to approach the introduction of alcohol to their offspring with strategies ranging from, ‘here get a bit of this into you’ to abstinence. Adolescents seem less confused. While some will abstain, most will fall somewhere on a spectrum of reluctant opportunism to all embracing opportunism.

As adolescence, particularly for the middle classes, has become prolonged due to attitudes, increased education, delayed marriage and parenthood and financial independence, the introduction to alcohol and it’s ongoing use has also become increasingly separated from ‘adult’ life. Venues and events for youth and young adults are often separate from the ‘adults’. This market segmentation seems sharper today than ever. It is also easy. Adolescent/youth culture is facilitated (not created) by marketing, promoting it as separate and conforming to it’s own standards. As such with a little help from the alcohol corporations, adolescence has developed it’s own drinking standards and culture almost entirely separate (not quite) from that of adults. Young adulthood has become intertwined with alcohol – parties and alcohol, nightclubs and alcohol, sport and alcohol, fun and alcohol, concerts and alcohol. Just add other recreational drugs. Once Rum and Coke, a potent mix of alcohol, caffeine and sugar was considered a good start if you wanted a fight. Now energy drinks are the way to be able to drink alcohol all night and still have the energy to fight.

From the outside it appears as though youth drinking has three objectives. Get drunk cheaply. Get drunk quickly. Be seen to be drunk. Perhaps there is a fourth  – let your friends who aren’t with you know about it. See Social Media. This is referred to as binge drinking. Adults/parents feel helpless as they see the problems. Regulation is the only ‘solution’ the ‘adults’ have at their disposal. This is difficult. It works for a while and then adolescents find an alternative way to achieve their goals. That’s what adaptive young people do and often with the help of an alcohol supplier – which in some cases will be a parent.

Making Adult Drinking More Fun: Let’s not forget most adolescents do become adults. They can then carry their drinking culture forward with them. Ultimately the drinking culture of youth can only be fully understood on a continuum with everybody else. Many will moderate their drinking but certainly not all. Here’s some things young adults will learn.

Adults who like drinking heavily will need to convince themselves of five things.

  1. I have had a lot of fun while drinking excessively;
  2. I don’t have a drinking problem or binge drink;
  3. My current health problems have nothing to do with my drinking;
  4. Anything I did while drunk was just bad luck and will probably make a good story;
  5. My drinking has nothing to do with the problem of those irresponsible, rascally, young adolescent drinkers.

To do this convincingly, you regale friends and associates with stories that occurred while drinking (see No. 4). Do this while laughing at yourself and others. This is often funny (at least to begin with) and if you’re not a drinker and don’t want to be an outsider then it’s best to go along with the joke or you will be seen as a bore and marginalized. If you were present at the time of the story or were sober at the time, it was rarely even mildly amusing let alone hilarious. Closer to the truth is that without intoxication the event was usually dull, dangerous, distasteful or meaningless. There are of course exceptions and some people definitely make more entertaining drunks and storytellers than others. Regardless, most of the fun is in the telling, particularly if you are drinking while doing the telling. ‘Being there’ qualifies you as a ‘member’ of an undeclared ‘in’ group. Favourite conversations for drinkers include ‘Do you remember when ..’, ‘Hangover’ and ‘Cocktail’. Hangover describes and compares hangovers while ‘Cocktail’ is essentially a menu of what alcohol was consumed. Hangover may extend to include ‘Cure’ or how best to rid yourself of a hangover. Hangover, cocktail and cure  conversations are all competitive. If you are not a ‘drinker’ you cannot compete and will be excluded from the conversation. That’s okay, you will find it both ritualistic and boring. That is, they are predictable and repetitive. Next you should say things like, ‘I drink less/slower than I used to (inferring that I could not possibly have a problem now). This also infers that I only drank irresponsibly as a young adult and the 20 standard drinks I had last night are modest.

Alcohol & Masculinity: Alcohol has long been at the center of masculine rituals in Australia, along with much of it’s foolishness. Enhancements to gender equity may gradually be moving alcohol to the center of female life and foolishness as well. I hope not but this could be an unfortunate and unintended outcome of equality. It does however extend the market for alcohol and new trendy alcohol products. It also extends the problems  – like violence, accidents, etcetera. None of this is the problem of the alcohol industry and so there is no need for ‘a solution’. Unless somebody stirs up trouble. If parents, governments or current affairs show hosts are concerned by these unintended consequences then they can be referred to Pubic Relations. Occasionally the adults will use regulations to contain the ‘problem’. Some regulatory responses have attempted to decrease overt symptoms of excessive alcohol e.g. reducing trading hours or time restrictions for entry to nightclubs has reduced some violence. There is unlikely to be a response that hurts the interests of the major corporations involved in alcohol production and distribution or the governments tax income stream. Some late night drinking will simply be displaced to domestic venues (homes).

Many people can’t imagine a social event without access to alcohol. Ironic then is that breakfast at a restaurant or cafe has fast become a favorite time to meet. Perhaps because there is no expectation or pressure to include alcohol. The hospital emergency room does not fill up with people who have just been to brunch. Well not immediately in any case – see obesity.

Other Drugs Make A Difference: Large numbers of people love other recreational and prescription drugs with their alcohol. This changes the types of abuse and violence and consequently the injuries and state of people visiting the hospital emergency rooms. Alcohol + marihuana leads to less serious injuries than alcohol + amphetamines. The patients are also easier to deal with. Most of these drugs are banned and so are not direct competition for the ‘safer and acceptable’ mainstream alcohol market.

Nothing I have written here deals with the hidden culture of alcohol. The drinking at home, the self medication, the self loathing, the depression and other mental health issues.

Make no mistake, many  Australians think there is a drinking problem however for the most part they think it is somebody else with the problem. They would like it fixed so long as it does not change what they can do. Governments aim to deal with the symptoms and undesirable outcomes while being addicted to the tax revenue.

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