To drink or not to drink

Overland 200Boris Kelly, one of Overland’s regular bloggers, has an essay in Overland 200 on Australia’s alcohol habit, ‘Killing the worm in ourselves’. It begins like so:

C2H5OH, or ethyl alcohol, is a clear, colourless, volatile and flammable oxygenated hydrocarbon produced by the fermentation of sugar that is used, among other things, in the preparation of beverages. It is also one of the oldest and most efficacious of psychoactive drugs – and we love it. Anecdotal evidence – and, for most of us, personal experience – leads to this conclusion; OECD figures (2008) confirm it. Australians over the age of fifteen consume an average of ten litres of pure alcohol per capita each year. This puts us in the mid-range of comparative countries, with Luxembourg (which is, incidentally, estimated by the World Bank in 2008 to be the world’s most affluent nation) way out in front with 15.5 litres. The National Health and Medical Council of Australia concludes that, while most Australians enjoy a drink for relaxation and enjoyment, a ‘substantial proportion of people drink at levels that increase their risk of alcohol-related harm’ (my emphasis).

To abstain from drinking is to be regarded with a certain suspicion, as if you are not quite trustworthy or, in the case of men, not masculine enough. The right to drink is sacrosanct. Along with the beach, the barbie and the football oval, alcohol is emblematic of the Australian way of life and an icon of our democracy. It is ubiquitous across lines of class, education, profession and gender. Walk down the red carpet at any gala corporate event and you will find a gauntlet of waiters bearing libations. In Kings Cross on a Saturday night you will see young girls sitting in the gutter, eyes glazed over, stiletto heels awry, mini-dresses stained with vomit. Out in suburbia, attend the average eighteenth birthday party and watch the guest of honour chug-a-lug vodka shots until the bottle is drained.

Alcohol is the world’s favourite drug – and in Australia, where it has long been identified as a social and a health issue, it is also a political problem.

The essay is now online.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I enjoyed the whole of this essay but don’t quite agree with Boris that it is possible simply ‘to lead young people quietly by example’, as he suggests at the end.

    Sometimes one also needs to take the opportunities that present themselves to discuss the fact that a lot of Australians use alcohol to anaesthetise themselves socially, that there are underlying problems (sadly, usually just a lack of social confidence in so many cases) we are using alcohol to assuage, that this does not remove the problems and makes them more acute if an inability to manage alcohol consumption emerges.

    Maybe we just need to ask ourselves whether drinking alcohol really is as ‘social’ as we think it is – what precious individual quirks or skills and abilities are people (especially young people, sadly) protecting from the supposedly hostile crowd, when they drink, paradoxically, to hide themselves, to ‘fit in’?

  2. Hi Genevieve. I agree entirely. Example is not enough. I have three teenagers and it is a real struggle to crash through the cultural and peer pressure to binge drink as a rite of passage. I think it’s very difficult to talk to teens in any kind of meta language e.g.”..what precious individual quirks or skills and abilities are people (especially young people, sadly) protecting from the supposedly hostile crowd, when they drink, paradoxically, to hide themselves, to ‘fit in’?”
    The compulsion to conform to the pack is enormous. I take your point though. It’s not enough to lead by example and subtler strategies are needed.

  3. Thanks Boris – I did write a much longer comment originally which was not nearly as cliched – and I agree, that kind of psychobabble doesn’t do it at all on its own, and yes, I do have sharper tools, but I do wonder sometimes why it is necessary to have to use them, even with great sensitivity (as I have attempted to do).

    It makes me sad that I had to offer quite dramatic examples of how alcohol and chemicals fail ‘society’ (from direct personal experience, unfortunately) in order to communicate something fairly basic, however – that being happy comes from inside in the first place.
    Fortunately for my family, my observations have withstood the scrutiny of our young adults – I think it has maybe helped them, too, to know that the problem is not a new one.
    Having older people around you who show that it’s possible to assert yourself socially and otherwise without chemical support can help though, so hang in there.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.