Ban booze or make it boring?


Australia has some bizarre ‘alcohol related violence’ statistics

  • 1 in 4 Australians were a victim of alcohol-related verbal abuse
  • 13 percent were made to feel fearful by someone under the influence of alcohol
  • 4.5 percent of Australians aged 14 years or older had been physically abused by someone under the influence of alcohol

But all the scientific research says that alcohol has absolutely no effect on aggression, and in fact impairs coordination (you will enjoy the linked article).

Given my personal experience in many other countries where alcohol is not associated with violence or socially disruptive behaviour, I thought I would share my partially informed opinions. This post is purely to promote a more serious and informed discussion than the one recently on the ABC show Sh*tsville Express.

First, our behaviour when drunk is purely socially and culturally determined. There is no chemical reaction that makes people behave a certain way. Alcohol is not a stimulant – it is a depressant that makes you lethargic and uncoordinated. Yet we have evolved a culture that allows alcohol to be an excuse to behave in certain ways – to vent aggression, to indulge our attention-seeking behaviours, or to be blunt about our sexual desires.

The classic case is where someone uses alcohol to ‘build up’ the courage to act a certain way. It is both placebo and social excuse in one.

Second, by having warnings about how you might behave when drunk only seeks to enforce those behaviours. As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity – you publicise bad behaviour, you get bad behaviour.

Third, taxing alcohol makes it expensive to indulge in regularly. This is a barrier to allowing alcohol to integrate into our food and dining culture. Have a wine or beer with your meal? Not at that price! I’d rather save my pennies and not waste alcohol unless it gets me really hammered so I can use it as an excuse for behaviour that is otherwise socially unacceptable.

So what sort of policies would reduce our violent binge drinking culture? I have a radical proposal.

Remove taxes on alcohol (revenues can be made up with land taxes)
Reframe the public alcohol messages.
Reduce the drinking age to 16
Allow alcohol to be sold in supermarkets in States where it is not
Remove liquor licensing rules and simply retain responsible serving of alcohol requirements. This will further integrate alcohol into everyday lives.

Essentially we are trying to make alcohol boring.

Public health messages might have a grandma drinking Bundy Rum diluted with cold water after dinner. Or we could do a complete reversal and really drill home the point that rowdy drunks are puppets of their social environment and that they can’t blame alcohol. If you are a tool when you are drunk, you are a tool. Embarrass them into less binge drinking.

As anthropologist Kate Fox explains

I would like to see a complete change of focus, with all alcohol-education and awareness campaigns designed specifically to challenge these beliefs – to get across the message that a) alcohol does not cause disinhibition (aggressive, sexual or otherwise) and that b) even when you are drunk, you are in control of and have total responsibility for your actions and behaviour.

Yet at the moment we have alcohol messages that seem to reinforce the message that alcohol is an excuse for disruptive behaviour, with phrases such as “alcohol is responsible for..”. Actually, no. Would you seriously say ‘tea is responsible for…”.

As I have discussed before, culture is often a good explanation of social and economic phenomena. The more we understand culture, and get over our simplistic ‘Pigouvian taxes can fix everything’ mentality, the better.

I would add that similar ‘boring’ approaches might help to change other socially disruptive behaviour, such as problem gambling.  For a very interesting discussion on the lies we tell ourselves I recommend this book by Gary Greenberg.

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  1. drsmithyMEMBER

    Having spent a few years living and holidaying in (Continental) Europe, I agree 100%. The more normal you make alcohol consumption, the fewer problems that tend to exist around the consumption of alcohol.

    • I would love to see that if a drunk person is the aggressor and his victim ends up in hospital for any reason that the aggressor should be made to pay all the hospital bills, the medical repairs, the police (if they attended) the ambulance (if it was needed) etc etc, then see what aggressive people are like if they know before hand they would be hit with a 5-10 thousand dollar medical bill. You could also go the route of Amsterdam and make dope legal, where in Amsterdam violence like this is probably the lowest per 100,000 people in the world. The budget surplus would probably be back to surplus in 2 years due to the extra taxes raised.

    • Did your time in Europe include a stint in Russia? The exception tests the rule – and in Russia, where vodka is literally cheaper than bottled water, liver failure and other forms of alcohol-related disease are leading causes of death (especially among males).

    • Like nudity. Spent time in a couple of EU cities over the last few years and a few beaches here and there. Nudity was common and ignored in some countries, in Aus/UK you would be on the sex offenders registry for the next decade or so. Wine was also drunk by teenagers out with family for lunch etc or at the campsites. The northern countries have more violence re alcohol than the south as they have a similar culture to Aus, UK also.

  2. Really interesting ideas. Though I’d raise the point that it seems like a lot of your proposals would be clearly very effective if we had our time again – that is, we could somehow create the culture from scratch. Given that we already have a certain culture in place (that you have noted), I’m not sure your suggestions would bring about the change. They may exacerbate some aspects of the culture.

    For example, part of the point of taxes is to make it particularly difficult for younger people (who are typically more price-sensitive) to consume large amounts of alcohol. Now, I take your point that we want to change the culture and normalise alcohol use, but I’m struggling to see how the policies will overcome what is entrenched behaviour, particularly if it gets a boost in the short term from some of your suggestions.

    • Strangely enough, as a US expat who has lived in Australia in 1994-5 and for the last 4 years, I think that the binge-drinking culture is actually considerably less now than what it used to be 20 years ago.

      It’s hard to pin it on any one factor, but I suspect that Australia’s transition to multiculturalism in assimilating non-British immigrants is changing the drinking culture.

  3. Stephen Morris

    The purpose of alcohol warnings is to allow politicians to be seen to be doing something . . . without actually doing anything.

    There are strong lobby groups both for reducing alcohol consumption and for not reducing (in fact, increasing) alcohol consumption.

    In such circumstances politicians will inevitiably adopt a policy which appears to do something without doing anything.

    The underlying cause of this problem – as with so many problems in modern society – is the system of “government-by-politician” which grants a monopoly on power to adversely selected polticial agents least suitable to have it.

  4. thomickersMEMBER

    One of my mates heading into criminal law tells me he is surprised how much time/punishment can be reduced (via our lovely court system) if you assault someone and use the alcohol as the excuse for behaviour and that you are “sorry” and will “never do it again”…

    • The Patrician

      Thom, That may have previously been the case but it is less and less so.

      Alcohol fuelled violence (the criminal courts are full of it) is viewed very dimly by most members of the judiciary. Definitely not a mitigating circumstance anymore and often an aggravating one.

    • Crimes committed when drunk/drugged should be tripled in sentence severity rather than being used an excuse. This may also aid in deterring (excessive) usage of these substances.

  5. A great post as always Rumple. I have always found it strange to see people suddenly change their behaviour as soon as they drink. I don’t really change that much, I just stay my usual self and don’t have the want to go off and destroy things or beat people up.

    Growing up my father’s teaching mirrored the Kate Fox quote. Alcohol was demystified. We were always allowed a little. My father always said, don’t get too drunk and never change the way you behave just because you are drunk and look after those who have drunk too much. So because of that, I have never been in a fight in my life and whilst my friends were doing unsociable things at the bar I was talking away to girls in the corner, but they still complained that it was a “sausage fest”….

    Given that the research you have quoted says that the excuse to act like a goon when on the drink is a placebo, the mental state of the nation is rather worrying. There is a lot of pent up anger and frustration that is being released “by a few drinks.” Is that the core of the issue that needs to be addressed? Is there a link between that and a “Death of a Salesman” like frustration of being someone that has affected self efficacy? I for one think so. I’d love to hear others opinions.

    • Great thought provoking stuff as always rumples!

      I’m 64 so what I say might be irrelevant to the problem. However….I see evidence everywhere of a loss of a sense of ‘self’. There are many manifestations but to list them would be wrong. On a scale of 1 to 10 we all have a bit of something.

      As a result we have allowed ourselves to become ‘products’ It’s a train of thought a bit way too complex to detail here but it looks to me that we are whatever we are told or ‘persuaded’ to be.

      I think Television is a massive problem. Aside from the obvious brainwashing effects of hours and hours of drivel every day Television and movies seem to be all about violence and the glorification thereof. Even worse violence is portrayed as having no negative consequence. After getting bashed with a piece of pipe, kicked to within an inch of his life, strangled and taking about 40 punches and 10 elbows to the jaw and face, our hero walks away with the girlfriend and a couple of minor abbrasions!

      Spirituality is deeply discouraged in every facet of society. Modern education is playing an important role in this process. So we have become sort of machines merely responding to thought stimulation and the various chemicals running through our bodies.

      Anyway I guess I’m old and past it. I just offer these few thoughts with goodwill.

      That said, if we accept alcohol can play a positive role in a community, and i do, then Rumples post seems to be fairly spot on. However I would shut Swill Pits, Bars and clubs, by about 1 am…latest.
      In my day I guess we started earlier by the time you got plastered it was certainly time to go home. As a result, when one was in any severely inebriated state one was at home with friends and family and not still wandering the streets bored and looking for trouble. Anyway there was a game of Rugby reasonably early the next morning so there were consequences!!!!

      • I think you are very close to understanding what is going on fl. Look at the sheer volume of marketing that people are digesting every day – every aspect of human self perception and awareness is manipulated and hammered upon. Every aspect of our lives and our psychology is invidiously invaded by those that do not have our best interests at heart.

        Junk food and junk culture – it is now rammed down kids throats from birth and not surprisingly it is the perceived normal. This has been done with the tacit support of the state, and so it would appear that people are more accepting and lack a strong critique.

        There may have been a time where people thought they could trust the state and the machinery that it allowed to perpetuate, that is, they trusted their interests were being protected. Those times have long passed.

  6. This is yet another discussion where it suits the corporate marketers for things to stay the same – expect no change. The corporates profiteering from the carnage are in charge of the discussion because the politicians wont risk offending a strong lobby group.

    Alcohol is most definitely marketed as cool and the escapism (no responsibility) aspect is allowed to perpetuate. Bang on R – lose the taxes, ban the marketing, increase the disparaging marketing.

    Alcohol, sugar, fat, gambling and violence are now quite ruthlessly marketed to young adults. Drugs are well marketed as well in their own way with the bans and high dollars feeding into their own version of cool.

    The thing is this is all really really old news – change is not expected in this space. In fact it is likely to get much much worse.

    Look after your kids because f**k knows society aint.

  7. I grew up in EU. Alcohol was everywhere and us kids thought it didn’t taste too good. No one made any fuss if we drunk a bit. They knew we would end up having a sip or two and that would be the end of the story. Being drunk was a bit shameful in fact. Anyway the attitude about smoking was quite similar with the attitude about alcohol here. Parents used to tell they are going to beat the shit out of us if they catch or hear us smoking. Guess what…. we all smoked and thought is such a great thing to do. Maybe there is a lesson here….

    • +1 Unless the packaging/advertising goes down the cigarette path, the sort of mock outrage at the behaviour and faux control is actually a positive for the marketers.

  8. Agree with most of the points but why would you want to remove alcohol taxes? They offer effective ways of recouping the significant cost to society of alcohol usage.

    I am a libertarian and would like to see all drugs legalized, taxed (according to health and societal damage they cause), have limited advertising and prominent health warnings.

    Why are governments are on a crusade to stop tobacco consumption but alcohol is not treated with the same zeal? Any reasonable measure of damage to society would show alcohol is the much more dangerous drug. Smoking hurts the user but alcohol causes much more collateral damage to society.

    You can split Europe in the Nordic and Latin parts. Generally the Nordic parts e.g. UK, Ireland, Scandinavia have the same issues with binge drinking as Australia. The majority of Australians descend from Nordic Europe.

    • The point is that artificial scarcity creates its own set of problems and can have a paradoxic effect of increasing demand by allowing the pushers to play upon human frailties of relative position and cool.

      If mainstream city society thinks we have it bad, spare a thought for the aboriginal communities. Noel Pearson’s thoughts make for very interesting reading on this and my understanding is they tend towards accepting a total ban.

    • scott muz, you are a libertarian and you favour more taxes and want to limit advertising?? hmmm, I dont think you are a libertarian

      • I guess I’d characterize wanting to legalize all drugs as Libertarian.

        But I guess I do it out of desire to limit the damage they cause to society rather than from a Libertarian dogma that all laws and regulation are bad.

        I think that the treatment of cigarettes circa 2008 (post ban of smoking in public places but pre-latest package labeling laws) is about correct for all drugs that have some danger to individual and societal health.

    • The Householder

      Unfortunately, many of the studies of the costs of alcohol to society completely ignore the benefits. A cost-benefit analysis (it was done in the mid-90s, not online sorry) found that alcohol had a small net benefit to Australia overall. That is, the health and other benefits from the vast majority of Australians who drink sensibly and have fewer heart attacks outweigh the costs of people who drink too much crash their cars or get liver disease.

      • Hi Householder,

        I guess I’d need to read these studies to comment.

        I don’t doubt that the cost to governments of alcohol are covered by the considerable taxes levied upon them. But I guess that is my argument. Taxing drugs offers a great way to cover the costs they cause to health and policing.

        I grew up in Darwin and Alice and so my views of the societal damage caused by alcohol are very much colored by seeing the massive damage alcohol consumption causes in those cases.

  9. I wonder if there is a direct correlation to overpaid people and their behavior when drunk?

  10. I remember having fun explaining to my Pakistani friends that not all Western countries behave that way with alcohol.

    I never seen a drunk girl in france, never and seldom guys drunk even at the Uni.

    And a bottle of Rum cost $10 in France ( and is much better than the bunda crap).

    look like another purely anglosaxon issue 😉

    • I spent a few weeks (twice) at Pigneto on the out skirts of Rome and found it quite amusing/pleasing that 4 guys (dressed up) sat at a table all night with one bottle of red wine, these guys where in their early twenties, In fact all my time in Rome I didn’t see any drunks and also seen people drinking from 10am, I encourage my two young girls to have small drink occasionally, (birthday/Christmas day) and we basically show them that you can have a good time and don’t have to be drunk to do so.

  11. dumb_non_economistMEMBER

    I would only agree to a stepped process, our drinking culture needs to be altered first otherwise we’ll see a marked deterioration for a period before it hopefully improves.

    Agree with dam that it’s more an anglosaxon issue.

    There are health issues with a reduction in the age to 16, they are already saying that drinking prior to 21 is an issue for brain development.

  12. not sure how much fieldwork your anthropologist has done. Binge drinking most definately is linked with violence, whether that should be an excuse or not is irrellevant. it DOES remove inhibitions by reducing normal awareness of a)how you are acting b) how others perceive you are acting and c) the consequences of your actions. Its idiocy to suggest otherwise. …. as for Europeans being more moderate, pick your country. Mediterraneans definately, norwegians not so from my observations.
    … maybe we have more restrictions BECAUSE our culture is that way inclined. Check out NZ for the impact of lower age restrictions on binge drinking. The 2 are demonstrably correllated. and has later license hours in the CBD led to less binge drinking?