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Addressing Australia’s problem with alcohol

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin University’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing.

In the 2015 Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) Annual Alcohol Poll, 34 per cent of Australians said that they drink to get drunk, 43 per cent said they had vomited as a result of drinking, and 75 per cent said Australia has a problem with excess drinking or alcohol abuse.

But in the same poll 92 per cent of Australians identified themselves as responsible drinkers.

As the young people might say, what the..?

Abstract language

There are problems in the way we use language to talk about the issue.

Terminology, such as ‘Drinking Responsibly’, ‘Wisely’ or ‘Properly’ is abstract at best, and diverting at worst.

What exactly is a responsible drinker? Accusing someone else of being irresponsible because they were having ‘a couple of beers with their mates’ or a few glasses of wine after a hard day at work would likely result in cries of being a wowser, ‘unAustralian’, ‘politically correct’ or some other cliché that is rolled out whenever someone challenges the status quo.

The problem is that alcohol is such an integral part of most adult (and adolescent) life in Australia that it has become a social, and some would say structural, norm.  It requires significant psychological resources to challenge the status quo.

Think about it. When you refuse alcohol at social events, it is often followed by a ‘why?’, an assumption that you are pregnant or on some ‘health’ regime, or participating in a fundraising abstinence month that the questioner wasn’t aware of.

The fact is that it is actually easier to be a drinker, than to not be a drinker.

'The problem is that alcohol is such an integral part of most adult (and adolescent) life in Australia that it has become a social, and some would say structural, norm.'

Dr Paul Harrison,
Deakin University

Marketing the message

In any marketing campaign, whether you are trying to get people to ‘buy’ your product (and in this context, the product would be to reduce drinking) or maintain loyalty (continue to drink less or not at all), programs need to communicate to the target market in a way that is direct, accessible, personal and incremental.

So, instead of generic, unclear language such as ‘responsible’, ‘wise’ or ‘proper’, we should be helping the different markets and vulnerable segments understand what actually is wise, proper or responsible. How many drinks are safe? What actually constitutes a standard drink, in comparison to what we are actually served?

You also need to build a support network around the target market, that makes it easy for them to adopt the new behaviour, and more difficult for them to ‘defect’ or return to their old habits.

The only way forward is to recognise that there is a range of parties who must be involved in addressing the problem. I refer to it as the four pillars of responsibility: the individual, family and friends, government and institutions, and the alcohol industry.

Beyond the individual

Family and friends play a significant role in determining the types of behaviours seen as norms. They model both positive and negative behaviours, and provide support – whether psychological, social, financial or structural – for the behaviours of those in their networks.

Government and institutions have a role to play through legislation, policy, processes and symbolism. The fact that former NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, introduced and implemented a range of lockout laws in Sydney, along with minimum sentences for drug and alcohol fuelled offences, sent a message that this behaviour was no longer a remote problem and that the state would no longer tolerate it.

Government also has a role in using other means, such as taxes, to make it easier for people to not choose alcohol. This requires significant effort to understand what motivates people to buy alcohol, and find ways to replace what they are seeking.

And, finally, the alcohol industry has to take the problem seriously, and recognise that the product they manufacture and sell is part of the problem. The industry and its lobby groups should recognise that they are beneficiaries of a society that allows consumption of their product and therefore have a role to play in addressing associated problems.

Despite some positive evidence from the ABS that, on average, all Australians (including those who do and do not drink) appear to be consuming less alcohol now than any time in the past fifty years, alcohol continues to kill 15 Australians every day and is estimated to be involved in up to half of partner violence cases in Australia.

The evidence is clear. While the issue is gaining traction, we have to keep raising the issue in the public arena, debating it and using evidence across a range of fields from public health to psychology to systems theory and even political theory to develop ways to make our country a safer and healthier place for everyone.

Find out more about the research being conducted in Deakin University’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing. This piece first appeared on Dr Harrison’s website Tribal Insight, where you can find essays, discussions and the latest research and theory in the world of social psychology, consumerism and marketing.

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior lecturer, Deakin Business School
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