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Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

Prelude

In mid-2009 a brief story appeared on the web site of The Australian newspaper (No Author 2009). Under the heading ‘Victorian Premier John Brumby says booze is too cheap, as Melbourne reels from escalating street violence’, The story painted a disturbing picture of the claimed relationship between readily available cheap alcohol (in the form of cheap white wine), underage drinking and drunkenness, and increasing street violence. The sentiment, the concerns and the content could be found, as we will argue, in many other spaces and places in the industrialised democracies at the start of the twenty-first century.

The story suggested that an Australian Federal Government Preventative Health Taskforce was examining an array of measures including the introduction of a so-called sin tax on alcohol, changes to liquor licensing regulations, and changes to the marketing of alcohol. John Brumby, then the premier of the Australian state of Victoria, was quoted in his responses to questions about these policy discussions: like many a politician in this context, Brumby voiced his concerns about alcohol and binge drinking, saying that: ‘“It is a fact at the moment that some of the cheap, very cheap white wine – colloquially known, I think, as goon – you can buy for as little as 50 cents a drink… and I would say that’s a very, very cheap price indeed”’.

The story went on to say that the former premier thought the problems of violence that were ‘gripping’ the streets of Melbourne were the result of drunkenness and ‘swarming gangs’. According to Brumby:

“They’re people who can hardly stand up, they’re people who’ve had 20 or 30 drinks and they’re in a state where they’re just not in control of their senses and I think some of them unwittingly are involving themselves in violence and alcohol is the sole cause of that”.

In the UK, meanwhile: ‘A blonde student lifted her glazed eyes to the camera, held up her drink and smiled. She was wearing stockings with a lace slip and had ripped her T-shirt in half to reveal her bra’. So begins a story in the UK newspaper The Observer in September 2008 (Asthana 2008). In the article the author reports on a debate in the UK about the responsibilities that university student unions have to promote responsible drinking, and to take steps to curb intoxication and drunkenness among young people at events staged and/or promoted by the unions. The story posits that one dimension of the debate is related to claims by student unions that various companies and promoters irresponsibly target the university population in the form of drinks promotions, pub crawls and organised binge sessions. The blonde female student given a starring role in the story was apparently on an ‘organised pub crawl in which hundreds of undergraduates lurched from bar to bar as they cheered, laughed and downed drink after drink’, an event not uncommon in university towns, the article implied.

The National Union of Students claims to be trying to encourage a responsible approach to drinking, and has criticised the companies running the pub crawls, saying that ‘they encouraged young people to binge-drink’. The union targeted one particular event organiser, Carnage UK, whose university pub crawls are ‘staged in 15 different cities and will host 300,000 students over the next university year’. Such companies and events were ‘putting “hurdles” in the way of their attempts to encourage responsible drinking’, the students claimed.

The Observer article suggests, however, that student unions may indeed be on a less than stable (high) moral ground:

… the company that runs Carnage UK hit back by releasing a list of events organised by unions across the country that advertised cut-price drinks and appeared to promote heavy drinking. According to the research, many student unions continue to run or promote nights such as “drink the bar dry”, a “pound a pint” and “trebles for singles”.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the competing claims about who is promoting a culture of binge drinking, intoxication and drunkenness in UK universities, the article cites Professor Ian Gilmore, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, on the risks to health and well-being, and the potential negative social consequences, of intoxication and drunkenness:

“Although alcohol is legal, it is still a drug. It should not be used as a loss-leader like soap powder.” He said there was still a university culture that revolved around alcohol, and warned that binge-drinking could lead to violence, date rape, unwanted pregnancies and serious injuries.

Back in Australia, at the annual Earle Page lecture at the University of New England in September 2009, Tony Abbott (2009), the former Australian Federal Government Health Minister and the then Opposition Shadow Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, devoted a deal of space to commentary on the ways in which successive Australian governments had attempted to deal with a range of chronic, seemingly intractable, health, well-being, housing, education, work and life-expectancy issues in remote Indigenous communities. Much of this commentary focused on what Abbott and others, including leading Aboriginal Affairs academics, have identified as a ‘paradigm shift’ in the ways that these issues are conceptualised, a shift echoed in the title of Abbott’s lecture, ‘The end of the disaster narrative and the new consensus on Aboriginal Affairs’. In the lecture, he stated:

Sutton has noted the pressure on the new government from “within Labor and certain Aboriginal circles to water down” the intervention. A progressive politics, he said, has “dulled our instincts about the sanctity of indigenous people’s right also to be free of violence, abuse, neglect, ignorance and corruption”. In most Aboriginal towns’ special circumstances, the right of children to a good night’s sleep and of women to be free from drunken violence should trump the normal right of adults to drink alcohol… the right of children to have food on their table should trump adults’ normal right to spend their money on cigarettes and gambling, especially when that money is not actually earned. As Warren Mundine has frequently said, it would be better to extend welfare quarantining to all welfare dependent families with children than to lose its benefits for Aboriginal people because it might seem to some like racial discrimination.

Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

   by Peter Kelly, Jenny Advocat, Lyn Harrison, Christopher Hickey