Last updated: 09 Aug, 2017
Opinion piece by Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO
It’s no secret that Australians love to drink. For many of us, rarely a celebration goes by where we don’t have a tipple, down a beer or raise a glass.
One of our most popular Prime Ministers Bob Hawke was almost as famous for his beer-drinking as his leadership. In fact proving their ability to scull a beer seems a necessary rite of passage for many of our leaders.
Drinking to the point of getting drunk is accepted and often expected in our society. If you happen to be out in one of our city centres on a Saturday night you’ll see ample evidence of this.
It might therefore surprise you that as a whole Australians are drinking less alcohol than in previous years. In particular young people, whom we often associate with high risk drinking, are drinking less than previous generations.
While this is certainly welcome news, alcohol consumption rates on their own don’t tell the whole story. If we look at the number of people who end up in hospital due to alcohol, the picture becomes far less rosy.
The amount of alcohol-related hospitalisations has increased by more than 60 per cent in the last decade. A snapshot report conducted by the Australian College of Emergency Medicine late last year found one in eight Victorians who arrived at hospital were there because of alcohol-related incidents. Australians are drinking less, but more of us are ending up in harm’s way. You only need to spend a couple of hours in one of our hospital emergency departments over the weekend to see the terrible toll alcohol can take on both patients and hospital staff.
No one wants to end up in hospital after a night on the booze. No doctor or nurse wants to face physical and verbal abuse at the hands of a drunk patient. No one should be happy that emergency waiting rooms are full of injured Victorians who’ve had too much to drink.
Although the majority of Victorians drink moderately, there are too many in our community who continue to put themselves and others at risk of serious alcohol-related harm. Which is why VicHealth has done considerable research into why Victoria, and Australia, has a culture where risky or binge drinking is acceptable.
We’ve discovered, despite the stereotypes, there is no one ‘drinking culture’ in Victoria. People drink for a range of different reasons, in a range of different ways and at a range of different levels – from construction workers drinking to be ‘one of the boys’ to university colleges where binge drinking is just a ‘normal’ part of student life on campus. What’s considered acceptable in a rural community may not be okay in suburban Melbourne.
With so many different alcohol cultures, it makes sense that a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to effectively reduce risky drinking in Victoria. Which is why we developed the Alcohol Cultures Framework to guide public health action on alcohol culture change. We’ve also recently announced support for nine new creative projects to try to change a range of drinking cultures across the state.
These projects, funded through VicHealth’s alcohol culture change initiative, aim to increase social support for low-risk drinking and reduce the impact of alcohol on the health and wellbeing of Victorians. We’re funding creative approaches to change often long-held and deeply embedded cultures of drinking.
For example, we’re trialling a mobile phone text messaging project to see if we can shift the culture of binge drinking among university students living on campus. Another project will use a workplace peer-support model to change the drinking culture amongst construction workers in rural Victoria.
From projects involving young people in Melbourne’s night time entertainment precincts to middle-aged drinkers in regional areas, what these initiatives have in common is a focus on changing alcohol culture from within. It is critical that people within cultures of high-risk drinking are empowered to lead the change. It’s why we’re investing in community leaders so they can have the tough conversations about alcohol culture and the role alcohol has in our lives.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink but we want people to be safe and well. We want to see a Victoria where everyone can have an enjoyable and safe night, whether we’re at home or out for the night – a culture where we don’t feel as though drinking to the extent of becoming drunk is necessary to have a good time.
These alcohol culture change projects are a great start towards changing our relationship with alcohol – a relationship that has become toxic for far too many.
Click here for more information visit about the alcohol culture change initiatives.
Jerril Rechter, CEO VicHealth