Time to lighten up the booze debate

So far we have been lucky in Canberra to have escaped the “coward’s punch” tragedies that have killed young men and shattered families in Sydney. But ROBERT MACKLIN fears it’s only a matter of time…

ALCOHOL is Australia’s drug of choice. Nothing new in that.

We are probably unique in world history to have actually used booze as our colonial currency in the days of the Rum Corps. But since that time it has become so embedded in our national ethos that when one of our sporting teams triumphs – the cricketers being the most recent case in point – we’re more than happy to see them embark on a three-day bender to “celebrate”.Alcohol

Unlike the more civilised countries of Europe, notably France and Italy, our drinking habits tend to the nightly pre-dinner tipple and the weekend binge. It’s the latter that seems to have been responsible for the violent attacks on innocent passers-by, say nothing of the regular punch-ups that degrade our public places, our national image and our self-perception.

But beneath the surface there is another related problem. Those pre-dinner (and pre-lunch) tipples can all too easily become habit forming.

And the figures for alcohol dependence – a polite expression for alcoholism – are frightening. According to the AMA, one in 10 Australians drinks at “unsafe” levels; and some 40 per cent of our young people are binge drinkers.

The results are family breakdowns, domestic and public violence and carnage on the roads. Our ER clinics at the weekend can resemble a war zone.

Our response to the problem has focused on the symptoms rather than the cause – greater policing and shorter licensing hours for the bingers; and AA for the “disease” of alcoholism. Unfortunately, both are little more than public placebos. An increased police presence at binge drinking trouble spots cannot be sustained; and in any case these “spots” incorporate the entire continent.

Moreover, a powerful combination of hotels, clubs and retailers have joined with the alcohol industry to run interference on all attempts to reduce opening hours or tighten age-based regulations.

AA is a more complex matter. The organisation was developed in the 1930s by men who were “chronic inebriates” and offers a single path to recovery: abstinence, accepting one’s “powerlessness” over alcohol and surrendering to some external godlike power one day at a time. And while AA doesn’t conduct research itself, independent studies have produced “no conclusive evidence to show that AA can help patients to achieve abstinence” (Cochrane Drugs and Alcohol Group 2006).

However, what we do know is that taken in moderation alcohol is a delightful social lubricant. The real problem is that the industry has so doctored our favoured tipples – beer and wine – with the active (and addictive) ingredient that the drinks themselves are unsafe. Popular beer brands contain 5 per cent alcohol while wine is about 15 per cent.

There are light beer alternatives, but they represent only a small percentage of the market. There is little to no “light” wine. Surely, that’s the place to start on our road to maturity in enjoying alcohol. Cut the percentage and we can have the pleasure without the pain… and the deaths.



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