The Problem With Our Drinking Culture Is There’s No Culture

Megan Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and online editor for Going Down Swinging.

Approx 8 minute reading time

There’s a marvellous bottle store across the creek from my house that lets you drink on the pavement. They even give you ice buckets. We call it ‘The New Black Cat’, because The Black Cat was the name of our local in Edinburgh, which we liked because of the cheap wine and outdoor tables.

Sitting outside this fine Melbourne establishment, watching a bottle of house white condense nicely in front of me, I asked my friend whether he thought he would drink less if he could afford better-tasting alcohol. Inside, staff were setting up for a very elaborate and very expensive looking whisky tasting, while the late-summer sun slipped away behind us.

“No,” he said. “That’s not the point of drinking.”

“What’s the point, then?” I asked, taking a big gulp of wine to mask the weird aftertaste.

“To get drunk. What other point could there be?”

While I can never tell whether this particular friend is being serious or not (the cynicism behind his humour runs deep), I wondered whether this kind of attitude had something to do with the binge drinking culture Australia and New Zealand is so famous for in Walkabout bars, Contiki buses and certain casinos around the world.

Health and safety concerns aside (and when it comes to binge drinking there are many), I also wondered whether we could be drinking in a way that was more sustainable: involving less cash, better alcohol, fewer hangovers, and a little more fun than waiting for that next stage of intoxication when feelings become interesting.

“Piss off to France,” is the obvious retort here, but are things in Europe really any better?

Boozy Aussies: the myths behind our ‘drinking culture’

It’s a simple but beautiful dream: a fine Burgundy with lunch, a few post-work Belgian beers, some rosé with dinner, then maybe a dram of peaty Scotch to end the night. But while a European lifestyle may appear more elegant than another game of ‘Edward Scrumpy Hands’, drinking in this way isn’t necessarily healthier.

“It’s wrong to suggest that would be a model you’d want to adopt,” said alcohol research, policy and treatment expert Professor Steve Allsop, who works as director of the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University in Perth.

After raising a few drinking myths to Professor Allsop over the phone one morning – earlier than he’d have liked, after I forgot time zones were a thing – he politely busted all of them.

While he said this kind of dainty, prolonged drinking wouldn’t be enough to get intoxicated, you’d still be doing some serious damage.

“If I drank in that way every day, I begin to increase the risk that I’m going to have health consequences,” he told me.

Add to the mix a bit of alcohol dependence and the odd night of binge drinking, and your body won’t love you any more for your ‘Mediterranean diet’ than your Australian one. (Even if you attempt to offset the evil effects with the wonders of olive oil.)

Historically, said Allsop, while some southern European countries had fewer problems in terms of intoxication, they had more problems in the area of regular use.

More recently, countries like Italy and France – long admired for their moderate booze habits – have become horrified at the rise of binge drinking among their kids, with some Italians blaming imported British-American drinking culture. The French even made up a new word for the binge: beuverie express.

Meanwhile, the National Drug Strategy Household survey from 2013 showed that in Australia our rates of binge drinking (defined as more than four standards on one occasion) have dropped from 29 percent in 2010 to 26 percent. On top of that, daily drinking is the lowest it’s been since 1991, and teens are starting to drink later and less than ever recorded before. Conversely, those that do binge – along with drinkers over 40 – are drinking more than before.

So if we’re not necessarily better or worse drinkers than everybody else, and if the kids are doing all right, then why is everyone still so worried about our drinking? And why is stumbling upon a ring of twenty-somethings in Paris, chatting pleasantly at 2 a.m., still flabbergasting? And how come, despite alcohol consumption in Australia hitting a 50-year low, alcohol-fuelled violence is still on the rise?

Professor Allsop says how we behave when we drink comes down, in part, to what behaviour we’re prepared to tolerate. And that’s where the need for cultural change comes in.

Why ‘soz, I was drunk’ shouldn’t cut it

“For some people, alcohol is a passport to behaving in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t behave in,” says Allsop, referencing an important study from the sixties where psychologists actually travelled the world to watch people get drunk.

While in some countries people would sit around belting out folk songs when pissed, others – particularly in northern European countries like Scotland – would fight.

“Societies have certain behaviour – drunken behaviour, that is – that they’re prepared to tolerate.”

If you’re prepared to tolerate “boorish, aggressive, bad behaviour from people who are intoxicated”, then chances are it won’t go away anytime soon.

“You actually see it in the language that people use,” said Allsop, referring to people who try and use intoxication as a defence in court, or friends who might excuse their shitty behaviour by the amount of shots they threw back.

“You might still be angry with them, but often you take it into consideration as a mitigating factor.

“I think that [attitude’s] changing a bit in Australia, but it needs to change more.”

Food and fun could be the answer to your drinking problem

I raised my question again to Professor Allsop about whether drinking more delicious alcohol could help our drinking problem – if, of course, it were made more affordable. I thought about this one time I bought a $15 bottle of wine, which lasted considerably longer than my usual house white.

“Cheaper, quality wine is not the answer to alcohol problems,” he quickly replied. When pushed, however, he finally admitted that there’s some evidence that people who drink purely for the intoxicated effects are more likely to get in a mess than people who drink for the flavour”.

Even an irresponsible drinker like myself can see that, even more important than what you drink, is how you drink. Drinking with food or planned entertainment, for example, is clearly a better idea than drinking just to get drunk.

Moving past pre-drinks 

But with an average night out clocking up a sickly sum (you know things are grim when a bottle of wine costs the same as a one-way flight to Tassie), it’s not really surprising that young Australians quickly learn to save time and money by downing an evening’s worth of booze beforehand.

For some, kicking this habit down the track can be difficult. When you’ve grown up learning to drink cheap – let’s face it, Passion Pop doesn’t exactly foster the palate of a sommelier – figuring out how to balance your drinking with the responsibilities (not the mention the disappointments) of adulthood can be difficult.

beer snob

Learning to control the way we drink, however, can be helped by who we choose to drink with. When there’s a mix of people, entertainment and activity, then generally our behaviour is better too.

“People tend not to perform the same way when it’s a diverse community,” says Allsop, who contrasts the violent behaviour of young male “football hooligans” in his home country, Scotland, with family friendly AFL matches in Australia.

And while earlier closing hours can help manage violence, it’s also important our nightlife isn’t all booze and bars.

“When you come out of a pub at midnight or in Paris, it’s a very different crowd of people. It’s a diverse community doing diverse things: [they] haven’t been drinking for as long, [and they] have transport home.

“We keep hearing about night-time economy. Well, let’s have a night-time economy that’s not just alcohol. Let’s have restaurants, cafés, theatre. Let’s have the museums open until 2 a.m. in the morning.”

Whether it’s economy or culture, maybe learning to drink more responsibly can begin simply by imagining and planning a great night out – preferably one where alcohol, however delicious, takes a backseat.

* * *

Looking for ways to manage your drinking? Some handy tips:

Don’t drink to hydrate
Get your H2O in early and sip water between drinks or dilute them to reduce the risk of dehydration (and painful hangovers).

Only drink after eating or with food
“I don’t mean salty snacks,” adds Allsop.

Plan your drinking
Work out ways to avoid falling into the overdrinking trap – for example, getting into buying rounds can wind up costing your liver and wallet more harm than you intended. Alternatively, try asking for a non-alcoholic drink occasionally.

Don’t let someone top up your drink before you’ve finished
The bottomless glass makes it nearly impossible to work out how much you’ve been drinking.

Plan your night
Team your drinking around food or entertainment. The best time to decide if you’re going to drive is before you go out – the worst is after a few drinks when your car’s already parked outside.

Look after your mates
“Alcohol is a drug and as such we need to treat it with respect and remember it has the potential for harm,” says Allsop. Take care of your friends if they’ve had a few tipples too many: offer them some water, drag them onto the dance floor or suggest they stop drinking for a bit. Whatever you do, don’t ditch them. Come up with plan of attack before you head out.

Take some action

Get simple tools like a drink check chart, a drink calculator and tools to monitor your own drinking profile

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