Australia’s relationship with alcohol is ”calculated hedonism”, according to the latest of many reports into drinking commissioned by the federal Health Department. This presumably is a Bad Thing.
The report, released last week, argues the intentional pursuit of pleasure is getting in the way of productivity, which is a shame. But what if alcohol is, on balance, good? Alcohol, and the social practices that have developed around it, is a key part of human society, and even human civilisation.
My point isn’t to downplay the very real negative consequences regular excessive drinking can have. Or to ignore the damage some drunk idiots can do, like drink-driving or street-fighting.
But Australian public health activists and the Health Department have decided the small minority of chronic alcoholics or our inadequate late-night policing isn’t the problem – it’s our drinking culture in general.
Traditional Australian mateship rituals like shouting a round of drinks are now seen as a form of peer pressure, and allowing staff to go out for after-work beers is seen as employer negligence.
So the Preventative Health Taskforce and the report leaked out of the Health Department argue workplaces are potential ”alcohol harm-intervention settings”, key battlegrounds for the Government to change our drinking culture. They recommend enacting workplace alcohol education, introducing health checks for employees, and making alcohol prevention strategies a part of industrial relations awards.
What’s interesting about these proposals is what they reveal of the health community’s beliefs about the sort of lives Australians should be leading.
A philosophical watershed was reached in February this year when the Health Department updated the Australian alcohol guidelines to describe the consumption of more than two standard drinks on any given day as risky drinking.
A bottle of wine contains more than seven standard drinks. So if you are one of those couples who like to spend their Saturday evenings with a serve of fettuccine marinara, a DVD box set of SeaChange, and a bottle of Clare Valley Riesling, you are now part of Australia’s booze problem.
Sure, the harmful drinking guidelines are just that – guidelines – but they fly so dramatically in the face of normal human behaviour they are almost completely meaningless. All they reflect is the steady ratcheting-up of claims about how we’re drinking, eating and smoking towards our demise. Never mind the fact that on practically every measure we are much healthier than our ancestors.
The vast majority of people have an overwhelmingly positive relationship with alcohol. Drinking is an important social lubricant. All this discussion about the harmful impact of drinking seems to forget alcohol is a key part of almost every adult social engagement held after 5pm. And for good reason. We enjoy alcohol’s effects and how it helps us relate to others. In almost every situation where alcohol is consumed – even consumed above what the health department has declared as risky – the effects of drinking are benign and, well, pretty enjoyable.
People very quickly learn how to manage their own drinking. Health officials might not always agree with our choices about alcohol consumption – bureaucrats will be bureaucrats! – but they should start to recognise these choices are nevertheless deliberate and informed.
After all, alcohol has played a fundamental role in the history of human civilisation – drinking has been tightly enmeshed with religion, nutrition, medicine and, above all, pleasure.
Compared to coffee and tobacco – regional delicacies that only achieved their global popularity a few hundred years ago – brewing, distilling and fermenting has been a major part of almost every culture for thousands of years.
In their new history of drinking in Australia, Under the Influence, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordon note Australians are nowhere near the booziest people on the planet, contrary to our self-image. Perhaps we deserve governments that treat us with the same relative moderation we treat alcohol.