By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO
Opinion piece first published in the Herald Sun 5 December 2013.
As the summer party season kicks in, so heralds the drinking season. Christmas parties, barbeques, end of year work functions and New Year’s celebrations all have one thing in common: alcohol – and lots of it.
Alcohol is a significant part of the Australian summer experience. It’s the stuff of tall tales and nostalgia.
Many of us tell stories about our benders with fondness. Like the time that Andrew rocked Bohemian Rhapsody at karaoke. Or when Nicole snuck past the bouncers and got into the club for free.
But we don’t talk about the empty wallet, embarrassing behaviour, the uncalled for aggression and arguments with mates and partners. Nor do we discuss the blackouts, or the questionable hook ups.
We apply a retrospective soft lens to the horrible hangovers, post-drinking mental anguish or that all-consuming morning after question: ‘what have I done?’. We forget all these things. And then we do it again.
No one deliberately sets out to experience these things but they happen.
The problem with this cultural love affair with drinking is that it’s worn as a badge of honour. It forms part of legend, and becomes the reason for the gathering, rather than a social-lubricant.
And it’s this party hard aspect of Victorian culture that VicHealth and the Victorian State Government want to confront head on. Today we’ve launched the first phase of a two year $2.6m campaign, Name that Point.
We’re asking Victorians, particularly those aged 16 to 29-years-old, to help us find a name for the point in the evening when it all starts to go pear shaped. And as an extra sweetener, there are weekly cash prizes for the best contributions.
I am not a special case. I drink. I used to drink more than I should. In fact, I used drinking as a way to cope with the stresses of life through my 20s and 30s. Until I faced the facts that drinking was affecting me and I made a conscious decision to scale it back.
There comes a point when we all have to take a good hard, and yes, sober, look at our culture and ask honestly whether we’re all drinking too much, too often.
Last month, VicHealth and RMIT released research that showed heavy drinking is okay pretty much everywhere: from weddings to sports matches, and even at baby showers.
Anyone who has done Febfast, Dry July or Hello Sunday Morning, knows that turning down a drink is seen as odd behaviour and is even frowned upon. So how did we get to the point where we need to have a socially acceptable reason not to drink, rather than a reason to drink?
Alcohol can be a crutch to lean on. It provides structure, routine, fun, and for many, it’s a central part of our identities. We drink because we’ve had a busy week, are feeling overwhelmed, we drink to commiserate and to celebrate, to relax, network and to reward ourselves.
And while we anticipate that tomorrow might be rough, not many of us are thinking about the long term consequences: liver cirrhosis, stroke, obesity, cancer, depression and the 60-something other serious illnesses alcohol is directly linked to.
There is a constant battle for those of us in health promotion to overcome the ‘short-termism’ that hinders our efforts.
As a rule, drinkers see getting to the bottom of a decent bottle of wine as fine, but frown upon those crazy binge drinking kids and pity the ageing down-and-out alco on the street. They represent the problem, not us.
Public health approaches tend to use fear, shock and dire warnings to change unhealthy behaviour. This does work, particularly in the case of road safety and tobacco, but alcohol is different because it can be enjoyed responsibly and for many of us, it’s a welcome part of our lives.
We are beginning to understand that when it comes to alcohol, these negative messages don’t always resonate with most of us, who aren’t at that extreme ‘binge’ end of the spectrum.
Name that Point takes a different tack. It asks us to reflect on drinking and how it’s impacting our lives and the people around us and as a community, we can come up with strategies to avoid getting to that place.
We have to combat the fear of missing out, being different, offending people and the fear of rocking the boat. No-one wants to be tagged a Teetotaller.
And we can begin by putting our culture under the microscope and talking openly, and honestly, about the place of alcohol in our lives.
The Name that Point campaign will run over summer, and Victorians can expect to see ads around town on public transport, online, at music festivals and in bars.