What is it about alcohol that turns off the cognitive capacity of the intelligentsia? Why can’t lefty social critics deal with drinking problems? On Monday it was Richard Farmer in Crikey, on Tuesday Bernard Keane. What gives?

Farmer laughed off the problem from the start. He reached back a century to disinter the language of the defeated temperance movement that inveighed against “the evils of drink.” None of the politicians he quoted think in those terms, so he is fighting a battle that ended decades ago. He dismissed reports of alcohol anarchy in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia with the knock-out blow “per capita consumption has not changed over the past decade.” Ipso facto, there can’t be a problem. Game over. He’s wrong there, for a start: if a problem isn’t getting worse, it doesn’t mean there’s no problem.

But his one-dimensional view that per capita consumption is the measure of the problem is years out of date. Public health people and the alcohol industry agree that patterns of drinking are as important as total consumption. Patterns of drinking account for phenomena such as sessional intake, frequency of drinking, the location, and collateral risks (e.g. swimming, driving).

Take the simplest example: if Richard drinks three drinks per day and Bernard drinks 10 drinks on each of two days they virtually consume the same amount in the week, but the risks they face are different. Bernard will be intoxicated twice and subject to a range of acute harms due to loss of coordination and disinhibition, while Richard is less likely to suffer injury. If Bernard is a teenager, his risk of harm is multiplied. His sister Bernadette is at greater risk again. If he keeps it up over time, he will also risk chronic disease, disability and death.

But there’s more. Relying on per capita consumption masks contrary movements among demographic groups. Older people drink less and Australia’s population is ageing. So we can expect per capita consumption to decline as the baby boomers age, but it doesn’t mean younger drinkers are safe, or that there are no problems, or even that problems among drinkers aren’t getting worse.

For example, the proportion of secondary school children who drink at dangerous levels ballooned between 1984 and 2005: it rose for students aged 12-15 from 11% to 21% in 2005. For students aged 16-17 the increase was 28% to 42% (Hayman et al, Drinking behaviours of Victorian secondary students in 2005 and over time, 2006). Underage drinkers are bingeing at historical high levels while national per capita consumption is stable. This data is matched by increased hospital admissions for alcoholic overdose, particularly among females aged 15-24 (National Drug Research Institute, 2003).

Everyone in the public health field and the alcohol industry knows per capita consumption in itself is inadequate as a measure of alcohol problems. Farmer’s sense of the issue is a relic.

Bernard Keane’s piece in Tuesday’s Crikey was even more embarrassing. One wonders why he bothered. He is entitled to his view that the way people drink is nobody else’s business, and it might have been interesting had he actually argued that point, and followed up the implications, because he’s on his own there. Not even the alcohol industry agrees with that. But he didn’t need to argue anything because he knows it’s just “moral panic”, a term that requires no explanation, no evidence and no analysis. With acute irony Keane accused health advocates of lacking evidence for their views, offered none of his own, except to quote the hapless Farmer, and proceeded to misunderstand and misquote Professor Margaret Hamilton who has spent 40 years working in the field.

A good question is why did these two who have done no work on this issue, and have nothing to contribute, feel the need to pontificate from afar and deny what is obvious to many Australians: that our collective use of alcohol is out of control and needs rethinking.

It’s funny how the left continues to fall for it. The alcohol industry pockets the profits and socializes the costs, estimated at $15.3 billion per year (NHMRC, Draft Alcohol Guidelines 2007). What a good deal: the shareholders get the money and the taxpayer foots the bills for the ambulances, hospital beds, physicians, nurses, surgeons, social workers, police, solicitors, lawyers, barristers, magistrates, coroners, prison staff, drug workers, youth workers, etc. Not to mention the families with the unemployable brain-damaged, disabled, and diseased. Why doesn’t the left think alcohol?

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW