• Public health experts say alcohol is being aggressively marketed to young people on Australia Day. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
For many Australians, January 26 is a massive booze-fest. But at a time when alcohol is linked to so many social ills, our national sport of drinking must stop, writes Jill Stark.
By
Jill Stark

24 Jan 2017 - 5:18 PM  UPDATED 31 Jan 2017 - 11:15 AM

Not drinking is un-Australian. I’ve lost count of how many times I was told this when I gave up alcohol for a year.

By swearing off booze, I had somehow declared war against my adopted country. When I became a citizen on Australia Day, it still wasn’t enough. I hadn’t toasted the occasion with a beer, so could I really be a true blue Aussie?

There is something deeply troubling about a cultural narrative that places alcohol so firmly at the centre of our national identity at a time when booze is linked to so many of our social ills.

And there is no date more wedded to this story than Australia Day. It has become a massive booze-fest. And the costs are too great to ignore.

Across the country, hospitals are gearing up for a day of carnage.  It is the number one holiday for heavy drinking, assaults and car accidents among people under the age of 25. The rate of ambulance call-outs is double that of an average day.

 It is the number one holiday for heavy drinking, assaults and car accidents among people under the age of 25. The rate of ambulance call-outs is double that of an average day

On Australia Day, 2016, a snapshot of 100 emergency departments conducted by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine found that one in seven patients were there because of alcohol. That’s 15 per cent of all people being treated. On a typical Friday or Saturday night the figure can reach 14 per cent and on weeknights, it is around eight per cent.

The chair of the College’s public health committee, Diana Egerton-Warburton, said emergency doctors had come to view Australia Day as the “peak day for the national sport of getting drunk and injuring yourself and other people.”

The major liquor chains are complicit in this culture, heavily discounting in the lead-up to the holiday and marketing January 26 as a day that can only be properly celebrated with bulk purchases of alcohol.

Public health experts say grog is being aggressively marketed to young people who are taught that not only is it culturally acceptable to be drunk on Australia Day, it is expected.

This view is often fostered by our national leaders who continue to perpetuate the myth that drinking is all part of the Aussie larrikin culture. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke made a hero of himself not for the first time this month, by sculling a beer at the Sydney Cricket Ground in an Australia-versus-Pakistan test match.

With the cameras on him, the 87-year-old knocked back a full beer in a few seconds as the crowd watched on the big screen, cheering him on. “Good on him. He’s a beauty,” the commentators observed. Cut to shots of the Australian cricket team, VB logo emblazoned on their shirts, chuckling and applauding.

Objecting to this “harmless fun” leads to the inevitable accusations of being a “wowser” - a uniquely Australian term that has become the gravest of insults.

Alcohol is not the enemy – it is legal and safe in moderation – but we should not glorify a drug that is heavily complicit in our high rates of family violence, sexual assault and road accidents.

When large sections of the population have come to link obliteration with national pride, surely something has gone awry.

Public health experts say grog is being aggressively marketed to young people who are taught that not only is it culturally acceptable to be drunk on Australia Day, it is expected.

I remember watching from my office window on Australia Day a few years ago as hordes of teenagers and 20-somethings poured out of a tram coming from St Kilda beach. Many of them were blind drunk. Draped in Australian flags, bikinis, hats and tattoos, and clutching red, white and blue stubbie holders, I’m not sure if any of them could have articulated exactly what it was they were celebrating.

This orgy of drunkenness is not only a public health disaster, it also compounds the insult to Indigenous Australians who view the day as one of mourning and dispossession.

We need to change the culture that teaches young people they can only truly belong to this great country if they have a beer in their hand.

Image by thinboyfatter (Flickr).

Jill Stark is the author of High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze. Follow Jill on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

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