So we all agree that we have a problem with alcohol in this country, but are we going to do something about it? This is not an easy admission to make, however simply identifying that we have a problem is only half the solution, now we have to commit to rectifying the situation. However if I was to go up to a random person on the streets I am pretty sure that they would not recognise themselves as being one of those people who have a problem with alcohol. This is the major hurdle that must be overcome.
From the outset we need to change attitudes. Do not get me wrong, it is fine to have a drink, be it with a meal, or part of any social function. But there is clearly a discrepancy between what an individual might consider to be a 'few' drinks, and what really constitutes a few drinks. For example the National Guidelines for the Consumption of Alcohol provide that an adult should not drink more than two standard drinks in a day, or four on any single occasion. For some (or perhaps many) that might come as a surprise. In fact the 2013 Alcohol Poll released by the Foundation for Alcohol and Research & Education found that the number of people in Australia drinking 6 or more standard drinks on any one occasion has risen from 12% to 17% between 2010 and 2013.
There are obvious social and economic costs that come with increased alcohol consumption. Loss of employment, health related illnesses and family breakdown just to name a few. But the costs are not just endured by the individual, their family or their employer. The community also bears the brunt of the costs associated with alcohol. There are the obvious increased cost pressures placed on our health system, from otherwise avoidable health complications, breakdown in families, which cause otherwise contributing citizens to society to withdraw. Further it can leave families scarred for a lifetime. There is also the behaviours and violence that may result from the over consumption of alcohol. That can range from alcohol related disturbances and nuisances to alcohol related violence. Each causes people to retreat from venturing into our public spaces.
It would be easy to suggest that all we need is to increase policing. However such an approach only offers a band aid solution. We need to think long term and think prevention. It is obvious that we need to change our culture and relationship with alcohol. So long as people consider pub crawls as a legitimate way to spend their time; the systematic over consumption of alcohol with the sole objective of getting drunk, that much remains obvious. However the need to change our relationship with alcohol should not be used as to deter dramatic changes being made in the now.
Alcohol seems to be infiltrating all aspects of our lives, even if so subtly. It is hard to venture outside today without seeing an advertisement for alcohol. This is not to say that companies should not be able to advertise their product, however there is a time and place for everything. Alcohol advertising should be limited to premises licensed to sell alcohol. Further the sale of alcohol should be limited to hotels, restaurants, bars, wineries and bottle shops. Moves to make alcohol available more readily available, such as for purchase in supermarkets would be counter productive to any desire to change our relationship with alcohol.
As mentioned earlier, the National Guidelines for the Consumption of Alcohol provide that an adult should not drink more than two standard drinks in a day. However many beers and pre-mixed drinks come in containers that exceed one standard drink. Alcoholic drink containers designed so as to be consumed by a single person should be resized so as to only hold one standard drink. If this was done, the size of the drink containers would noticeably shrink. It would make people realise how much they are actually drinking and also enable people to better monitor their over all alcohol consumption. No doubt some may get a rude shock.
Public drunkenness is not an uncommon sight in Australia, especially on the weekend. People may be found in the streets sleeping after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, walking about making a nuisance of themselves or in increasing numbers in the emergency departments of our hospitals suffering from alcohol poisoning. These are not criminal offences, and that is how they should remain. However change is necessary. At present, people may be told to simply move along, go home and 'sleep it off' or placed into a sobering up centre overnight. This provides a remedy for the now, however it is not unlikely that these individuals will be back out next weekend partaking in similarly reckless and risky behaviours.
It might be contended that we should let people live their lives as they see fit. If that entails drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, so long as they do not hurt anybody else, then so be it. However as noted earlier, the costs of alcoholism are not only borne by the individual. The costs spread much wider. It is this type of behaviour that requires particular attention.
People placed in sobering centres overnight, found in our emergency departments suffering from the effects of alcohol poisoning or repeatedly told to move along have to be directed to rehabilitation services. In the first instance this may simply come in the form of encouragement or provision of contact details for rehab services. However if their behaviour continues, bringing them to the attention of the public authorities, be it the police or hospital staff, then we have to take a firmer stance. People have to be required to attend rehabilitation, or take some other measure so as to overcome their obvious problems with alcohol. It is important that people are not ostracised by such actions, they must be supported. For at the end of the day alcoholism is a problem that we have allowed to take hold.
So now that we have all agree that we have a problematic relationship with alcohol, lets not leave it at that. Although culture changes demands that we seek long term solutions, that should not paralyse any efforts for effecting change from today.
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Raffaele Piccolo is a student at the University of Adelaide. He holds an Honours Degree of Bachelor of International Studies and is currently studying towards his final year of a Bachelor of Laws. He has a keen interest in public policy and community development. In his spare time he is involved in many community organisations.