Drinking buddies: why some men band together to damage their health
Though our national alcohol intake is falling, some male Australians are still stuck in the same old pattern of heavy drinking, and their health is at serious risk.
Australians have a reputation for being big drinkers. Stories of over-indulgence are part of the national folklore, from beer-guzzling prime ministers to infamous schoolies’ week antics. Frankly, some 73 per cent of Australians believe we have a problem with excessive drinking.
The good news is that our population’s alcohol consumption is at its lowest rate since the 1960s. The downward trend started around 2008–09 and now sees us drinking an average of 9.4 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, or roughly 224 stubbies of beer for every Australian over the age of 15. As much as that sounds, the Australia Bureau of Statistics points out that it’s significantly less than the 500-plus stubbies that were consumed in what they refer to as the ‘peak beer’ era of 1974–75.
Curiously, though, the incidence of alcohol-related harms appears to be either stable or rising depending on which indicators are being examined. The consultation draft of the National Alcohol Strategy, for example, notes that one in four road fatalities is linked to drink driving, and that between 10 and 15 per cent of emergency department presentations are alcohol-related.
The conclusion is that while Australians are drinking less overall, there are still plenty of pockets where risky drinking is considered the norm. And those pockets are disproportionately filled by Australian men.
In its 2018 Annual Alcohol Survey, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education found that men were far more likely to ‘drink to get drunk’ (51 per cent next to women’s 39 per cent). The VicHealth Indicators Survey 2015 reported that Victorian men are twice as likely to be at risk of short-term harm each month compared to women (40% of men vs 19% of women drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion).
Across every demographic we have found that men’s risky drinking practices are much more prevalent than women’s.
‘Across every demographic we have found that men’s risky drinking practices are much more prevalent than women’s,’ says Emma Saleeba, VicHealth’s Manager of Alcohol and Tobacco. ‘And it’s not just the drinking itself, but the flow-on effects. Hospital admission rates associated with risky drinking are nearly three times higher among men aged 18–29 years, and we know that if alcohol is involved with road traffic injury or family or intimate partner violence, it can increase the frequency and severity of those occurrences.’
But drinking is a social activity, and people’s alcohol consumption is heavily influenced by the contexts of where they’re drinking, why they’re drinking and who they’re drinking with.
‘Before you can start thinking about what interventions could be delivered to address risky drinking behaviours, you need to have a deep understanding of the particular social world you are targeting,’ explains Saleeba.
New social research method
A new research project funded by VicHealth and implemented by Monash University and addiction treatment centre Turning Point, investigated the drinking practices of 101 men from a variety of social worlds in an effort to better understand the forces shaping risky drinking behaviours.
The men came from a variety of settings across regional and metropolitan Victoria, including sports spectators, sports players, corporate workers and hospitality workers.
The common wisdom is that men are unenthusiastic, unwilling or even unable to speak freely about their drinking behaviours. If true, this poses a challenge for researchers. However, Steven Roberts, Associate Professor in Sociology at Monash University, says the project succeeded because of the research methodology used.
‘In my experience, men are not worried talking about drinking and alcohol, as long as you ask the right questions in the right way,’ he says.
According to Roberts, men are willing to open up as long as they are given a non-judgmental space in which to talk. ‘It’s easy to buy into and perpetuate the social myth that men don’t want to talk, but the key was conducting research that allowed us access to men’s natural social networks to explore their drinking.’
Focus groups commonly place strangers together. However the 22 groups in this project took advantage of existing friendship groups. ‘We tried to create a social atmosphere where group norms, culture and connection were already established,’ says Roberts. ‘That way the men felt comfortable almost immediately and we gained insight into what they collectively think is normal and acceptable drinking practice.’
The study also encouraged men to reflect on their own drinking attitudes and behaviours using a relatively new research technique known as ‘scroll back’.
One man was showing us photos of his wife and kids on holidays and he had a drink in nearly every picture. He was shocked …
In scroll-back interviews, researchers sat with men as they reviewed posts from their own social media feeds. ‘It was fairly common for the men to say that they didn’t drink as much as they used to but scroll-back also presented an interesting opportunity to use social media to critically reflect on potentially harmful practices,’ says Roberts.
‘One man was showing us photos of his wife and kids on holidays and he had a drink in nearly every picture. He was shocked and said he hadn’t realised how much alcohol was present.’
The scroll-back technique also enabled researchers to reflect on some of the masculine norms around drinking that emerged during the peer focus groups. Themes such as the way alcohol facilitates bonding and connection, or the way banter is used to regulate drinking practices, were discussed in more detail with individuals during scroll-back interviews.
The use of the scroll-back method is in its infancy in terms of health promotion research, but Roberts is cautiously optimistic about its potential.
‘We haven’t refined it or fully thought through the possibilities of using social media as an opportunity for intervention or critical reflection,’ he says, ‘but this method gave us insights beyond what we expected.’
The key findings
Using the scroll-back method, Steven Roberts and his colleagues’ research revealed deep-seated male attitudes to drinking that provide three valuable starting points for further work.
‘Risky drinking’ is a contested concept
Risky drinking was found to be prevalent across the sample, yet the majority did not routinely perceive their drinking as risky. ‘What men understood to constitute risky amounts of alcohol was very different from the national guidelines,’ says Roberts. ‘Many of the men said that risk started at 10, 20 or even 30 standard drinks per session. At the extreme end, some participants said there was no level of alcohol consumption that should be considered risky.’
Alcohol is seen as a social lubricant and means of connection
‘Alcohol is central to social interaction and connection for so many men, regardless of class, occupation or setting,’ says Roberts. ‘The volume and pace often varies, but the presence of it is clear.’ Participants in the study perceived alcohol to enable connections, lower inhibitions to help them open up. ‘In this way, alcohol had socio-positive effects,’ says Roberts.
Men are committed to autonomy
Participants saw their drinking as the result of autonomous decision-making processes. ‘The men believed that ultimately an individual was responsible for monitoring and moderating their own alcohol intake, but they also noted they would intervene and impinge on a friend’s sense of autonomy if safety was a concern, such as drink driving,’ says Roberts.
Future interventions focused on changing men’s drinking practices might focus on addressing risk, connection and autonomy. ‘It’s a tricky area to work in when you consider that people are engaging in harmful practices but they understand them to have completely benign effects,’ concludes Roberts.