After the Binge
Paul Toohey; 29/11/08; (3 Items)
As the Federal Government saturates the airwaves with a campaign to arrest an epidemic of youth binge drinking, this article examines a wider culture that sees alcohol as part of Australian life, not as our biggest drug problem. The girl is a star and she owes it all to her friends. Her You Tube moment is called “hot blonde vomiting” and features the girl – very Aussie and very, very drunk – kneeling on a linoleum floor, clutching a dunny seat as she barfs and hurls into the bowl for three-and-a-half minutes. Her mates are with her, all the way, filming the event right up to the “money shot”, being the final explosion of vomit.
Viewed one way, it could be a powerful anti-binge drinking statement. But this performance, one of many similar to it on You Tube, most often featuring girls as the preferred “talent”, has been watched by more than 35,000 people who are in it for the laughs. That is the rough equivalent of the number of Iraqi civilians killed in 2006; the Pakistani earthquake toll from 2005; or the number of Europeans killed in the heat wave of 2003.
It is true that the smallest things amuse us, and one of them is getting blind, bat-arsed, para, shit-faced, pissed or maggotted.
Christmas is upon us. It’s the binge danger zone.
If the mythology is right, girls will photocopy their breasts and boys will urinate in the chief executive’s wattle and banksia arrangement. Janitor cupboards and toilet cubicles will be crammed as kisses are stolen, and sometimes more, all with the unspoken pledge that it will not lead to broken marriages.
Groups of thirsty colleagues – some of whom have barely spoken through the year – will roar arm-in-arm through the night looking for fresh drinking fields, perhaps a pub with a doorman prepared to overlook laws about serving inebriated customers.
Something awry – and you can bet on it – will happen to at least one member of any such drinking party: a lost wallet; being clocked by a bouncer; an unwanted tongue in the ear; being stranded by taxi drivers unwilling to take home a spew-covered provisional moron; or finding yourself stuffing $50 notes in the garter of a 4am stripper whom you’re convinced loves you, profoundly.
It used to be that grim police superintendents would plead for restraint at Christmas and Easter to keep the road toll down. Now they plead all year round to counter the pavement toll of broken teeth and wired jaws and blinded eyes. And the cops have made it clear they no longer exist to simply run a mop over the wreckage of a city’s Friday night.
They are demanding to be part of state governments’ policy, calling for restricted trading hours and plastic glasses (37 people have been “glassed” at licensed premises in Darwin since July 2005).
The city most utilised on weekend nights, Melbourne; is now paying for issuing an opening invitation for all to enjoy it. This summer, police will deploy a convoy of Hummers to protect its citizens from the bingeing hordes.
The not-subtle euphemism is that a battle is afoot for control of the city’s blocks.
“Two cans, per man, per day,” said Bush Tucker Man Major Les Hiddins, advising punters in his beer ads from a few years ago to follow the army’s policy on sensible drinking. Wishful thinking, Les. Tell it to the young army dudes in Darwin and Townsville, who are awaiting deployment overseas. More accurate is the old joke where the man asks the taxi driver: “Have you got room for a carton and a pizza?” and promptly chunders all over the back seat.
Who doesn’t know the feeling? Even that great Australian square Kevin Rudd, who has taken a personal interest in anti-bingeing – much the same as John Howard for a while took a strong stand against drugs invading the family home – knows that lost-in-space feeling of having had too, too much. According to Rudd, it has only happened to him twice: at Scores nightclub, in New York, and his brother’s birthday party. If most of us had Rudd’s alleged inexperience, there would be no such term as binge-drinking.
It Hurts more to be lablelled a drunkard.
People will tip-toe around known alcoholics, fearing their violence or scorn, or being cornered by their interminably boring stories. Bingers don’t see themselves as having an individual problem.
They are part of a temporarily insane collective, travelling in thirsty, unpredictable swarms. They are young, which allows older Australians to kid themselves that they are witnessing a new phenomenon.
The Australian National University’s Maggie Brady, an expert on substance abuse, has noted that in 1843 a sober Aboriginal man in rum-soaked Sydney was observed staggering around, mimicking white drunks.
Brady says that Aborigines “carefully watched what happened to white people when they got drunk”. Images of bingeing are seared in the Australian psyche, no more so than the hard-working 1950s men, whether in suits or blue singlets, three-deep at the bar, drinking hard up to the old 6pm closing times and taking whatever was left of themselves home to their suffering families.
Older Australians might say that their world was more brutal and less forgiving, and think the likes of today’s pretty-boy AFL footballers – with their money, cars, stardom and girls – come from an altogether more reckless and selfish drinking culture, not born of pain (drowning memories of Changi or North Africa or France, or living within the strictures of heavy-handed church and state) but of needless extremism and self-indulgence.
The University of Melbourne’s John Fitzgerald, who has studied AFL drinking patterns, found 54 per cent of footballers drank at risky levels during the off-season; they were often fed free alcohol by bars who liked having them around, regardless of their state of inebriation.
News stories that came with the Fitzgerald report talked of the “long-term harm” awaiting bingers, but tended not to describe that harm.
Fitzgerald provided us with a list. “Physical: cancer of the mouth and throat, liver disease, liver cancer, bowel disease (gastritis and pancreatitis), cognitive problems and memory loss, depression, stroke, peripheral neuropathy, infertility (male), cardiovascular impairment (heart problems and elevated blood pressure). Social damage: unemployment or underemployment, stigma, financial strain, damage to family and personal, intimate relationships.”
There are some – clinicians, statisticians – who’d argue that anyone having 10 to 20 drinks one or two nights
a week is an alcoholic, because they have crossed into the statistical weekly defining threshold. But bingers, by definition, turn on and off. Theirs is not an alcoholic thirst; it’s a quest for write-off.
The soldier heading to Afghanistan next week won’t get legless till he returns in June next year. Alcoholics Anonymous defines this person as a “dry alcoholic”, but the guy is no alco; he’s a hard partier who – like many who operate heavy equipment, whether a machine gun or a D9 – knows the rules: it is fine to go into an iron-ore mine or to war on a brutal Bundy hangover, but a positive urine test for a joint smoked two days earlier will have the same bloke on a three-strike warning.
When Australians think “drugs”, we think dope, smack, coke, ice, speed.
The clinicians and the government want us to think alcohol as well but this offends our sense of fair play. Why must a drinker be, by definition, an alcoholic and a drug addict? Aren’t we just having fun? Yes – or it certainly feels that way, because binge-drinking is usually a group sport which requires momentum, commitment and a couple of hundred bucks per participant.
Targeting drinking is clever because it’s easy. The net casts wide and catches just about all of us who might, now and then, have a few too many. In June, DrinkWise, a research organisation that aims to promote responsible drinking, launched its first (and so. far, only) television ad, targeting the cycle of drinking as passed from father to son.
It shows a dad asking his son to grab him a beer from the fridge. As the boy does that he turns into a man who then asks his son to get him a beer, and so on through the generations.
The idea is that we are imprinted by the behaviour of our parents, but this first shot in the war thudded harmlessly wide of the enemy. DrinkWise, which wants to ward off accusations that it is killjoy or prohibitionist, holds the view that “most people can enjoy alcohol as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle”.
The ad’s setting is a normal backyard barbecue. The insinuation that you will inculcate your son into a life of drinking by sending him on a trip to the fridge – not to mention the subtle assault on the Holy Barbecue – is overbearing. Expect, next, margarine manufacturers running ads about evil cake-baking mothers sending daughters to the fridge for artery-clogging butter.
In the same week that DrinkWise launched its ad, Britain’s Home Office released an anti-binge drinking campaign far more powerful, credible, and directly aimed at Friday night’s young drinkers. The major difference was that it did not target guilt, or portray generations of stupid parents scattering seed for their stupid chook children. The UK ads asked direct questions of young drinkers.
One ad shows a stylish, sexy young woman who, as she slowly gets dressed to go out, smears mascara all over her face, breaks a stiletto heel, necks red wine, vomits, and walks out the door in a wet-stained short skirt and in a state of total dishevelment.
The equivalent “boy” ad shows him rubbing food all over himself, urinating on his shoes, tearing the earring out of his lobe, smashing himself in the face and setting off into the night covered in blood and filth. The punchline is: “You wouldn’t start a night like this, so why end it this way?” It should be noted that these ads, which aim to “de-glam” liquor, have attracted a lot more hits than the home-made You Tube vomit spectaculars.
It hurts parents who have raised their children lovingly and carefully to see them, as teenagers, can-opening their skulls, removing their brains, placing them in a blender, adding vast amounts of alcohol and turning the dial to three.
The traditional dread of a daughter or son getting into a drunken dickhead’s vehicle has been extended to a fear that their child’s entire night out presents a level, dangerous threat from an array of disconnected but joined-purpose idiots who will not rest until they’ve have done harm to another. Presumably they, too, have parents.
Whether things are really worse these days is not easy to assess.
But there is a sense, not unlike that expressed by one of the cops hunting the maniac in No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy: I just have this feeling we’re looking at somethin we really aint never seen before.
The Federal Government’s $20 million binge campaign hit televisions, radio and billboards last week with the sign-off: “Don’t turn a night out into a nightmare.”
Judging by the campaign budget, the Government is getting serious – more than it was with its dodgy alco-pops tax with its shabby pretence that it will hit young binge-drinkers. We know a tax when we see one. According to evidence now creeping out, young people aren’t drinking wise because of the tax, but they are drinking smart and drinking more.
They’re turning from pre-mix bottles and cans and going straight for the 750ml bottles of Bundy or Jacks or Absolut, which will save money and get them considerably more drunk than the miserly amounts of alcohol doled out in pre-mixes.
The new ads are a long way from the grim reaper with his bowling ball. They attempt to show kids themselves in the mirror: the guy punching out the other guy who accidentally bumps him in a pub; the girl and the boy undressing for drunken sex on the back lawn at a party, while friends – helpfully – take photos. They are not “shocking”, but in their very ordinariness they seem effective.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon argues that the time for this campaign is right. “Flat statistics can never tell the real story of the damage that alcohol is doing in our towns, our cities, right across the country – violence ripping through our communities, destroying children’s lives, taking away parents,” Roxon says. “I watch in horror the images on TV each night.
These are real people whose lives are being derailed by an epidemic of binge-drinking. I’m not prepared to just stand by and do nothing. It’s not new, of course – drinking heavily has long been a part of our culture – but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
Delivering cultural change is a tough ask for any government, but it’s one of the most important things we can do.”
Statistics don’t work as a behaviour-changing bludgeon.
Figures which show, for instance, that the cost of alcohol-attributable crime in 2004-05 (the most recent figures) was $1.735 billion, will not mean anything to someone heading out for a drink, let alone anyone else.
Somewhat easier to grasp is that:
– 20 per cent of dead drivers or riders were beyond the legal limit.
Or that extrapolated research conducted by Quantum Research over the 2007-08 holiday period found that:
– 2.2 million Australians had been subjected to physical or verbal abuse from drunks.
– 12 per cent of Sydney’s inner-city hotels and nightclubs accounted for 60 per cent of the state’s alcohol-related incidents.
Sometimes alcohol works, sometimes not. It wears many faces and we never know its true character until it has been and gone. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (said to have been written by Stevenson while on a cocaine binge) is most commonly described as an allegory on the good and evil that cohabit within us all. No doubt that is right, but Mr Hyde’s pitiless, mindless assaults – and his attempts at reparation the morning after – speak strongly of alcohol-affected behaviour.
Alcohol is such a familiar friend. We let it in the front door without knowing for certain how it will behave.
Perhaps we use it to make sense of others more than to know ourselves. It can improve or destroy sexual performance. It can make a conversation interesting or hideous. It turns up at marriage and it visits at death.
It haunts every increment between love and savagery, confidence and cowardice, reason and mindlessness. I’m pretty sure those yobbos who some years ago liked to go to the cricket wearing T-shirts that proclaimed “Instant dickhead: just add alcohol” got the joke. But which joke?
Alcohol is not going away. Prohibition is impossible. Let’s head into the binge season with a few cautionary tales about alcohol. They tend to show how having a few too many can turn your life, or that of others, upside down.
The characters are real and the settings should be recognisable to us all. We blushingly acknowledge that we in the newspaper game can claim no moral high ground because we, of course, are so acquainted with the gutter. It’s something to think about, nothing more.
1. Desmond Davill, 42, Born in the UK, came to Australia at the age of five, and lives in Adelaide.
Or he did. He’s now a resident of the Alice Springs prison. Never considered an alcoholic, Davill was in Alice working on sprinkler systems for his security company. He attended a barbie and later, with two friends, carried on drinking at the Melanka nightclub. The three left at closing time but could not raise a taxi. Davill asked the doorman, Terence Ponga, whether he could go back in the club to ring one.
Ponga said he couldn’t let him back in, but if Davill wanted he could try to wave for the attention of one of the staffers still drinking inside. Davill failed and went back to Ponga, persistently asking to be let back in. Words were had. Ponga turned away and Davill king-hit him in the back of the head, dropping him, after which Davill kept punching. Ponga lost a tooth and damaged a shoulder.
Some weeks after the attack, Ponga found his headaches were not going away. He was diagnosed with a brain injury and now has difficulty processing complex information. He becomes confused, suffers stress and faces diminished employment prospects. “I think it’s the alcohol that triggered me,” Davill told police in a statement.
The judge – based on evidence – thought that Davill did not have a problem with alcohol. The assault occurred in 2006, but he was not tried until late this year. The event has been hanging over his head all this time; too much time, it seems. Davill has been dwelling deeply on what happened. Sentenced to two years and six months, to be suspended after nine months, Davill is considered a suicide prospect. The judge marked his file “at risk”.
2. The Maiden Paliamentary speech of the Liberal party’s federal member for Swan (WA), Steve Irons, in March, was powerful personal testimony: “We need a sustained assault on the binge-drinking culture. I support the Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill, and I urge the Government to make responsible drinking part of its education revolution.
A report released by the WA Department of Health last month found that West Australians were now drinking 30 per cent more than they did 10 years ago. According to that-report, 3975 West Australians died from alcohol-related causes between 1997 and 2005 – and that does not include road deaths. One of those people who died during that time was my sister, Margaret Dix.
“My younger sister Margaret came to Western Australia about seven years before her death and we were able to develop a strong bond as brother and sister, which had not been possible earlier (Irons had been fostered out as a baby). On August 12, 2004, Margaret was drinking at the Rendezvous
Observation City Hotel’s lobby bar, catching up with a friend from Victoria, before she fell to her death from the balcony of the 15th storey of the hotel. Toxicology analysis indicated that Margaret had a blood-alcohol level of almost seven times the legal driving limit. The bartender, bar manager and licensee of the hotel were charged with four counts each of supplying alcohol to a drunken person. A magistrate later ruled that they had no case to answer.
“Unfortunately, Margaret is not the only sister I have lost to an alcohol-related incident. My older sister Jennifer was killed in a hit-and-run accident by an alleged drunk-driver in Victoria more than 35 years ago. I am not a wowser, and I am certainly no saint when it comes to alcohol. I enjoy a few beers on a warm day and a couple of glasses of wine with friends. But I strongly believe that we all have to work together in this parliament, with the states and with the community to make binge drinking un-Australian. Changing the nation’s attitude towards binge drinking cannot be achieved in the short term, but it must begin.”
3. On December 10 last year, at 10.45pm, Fiona Worts, aged 26, was driving home southbound on Perth’s Kwinana Freeway.
She was sober and obeying all road rules. Lucas Mitchell had that day turned 27 and had been drinking an unknown number of stubbies and tequila shooters since 2.30pm. Mitchell was coming the other way, at speed, with his headlights off, and entered the lane in which Worts was driving. She had no chance. Mitchell was at the time driving while disqualified. He’d lost his licence for five months, on August 13, for drink driving. And on October 5, while he was serving that suspension, he was again charged with drink-driving and driving without a licence.
Sadly for Worts, Mitchell was not instantly jailed but bailed to appear in court on October 10. He did not show and it appears there was no attempt to arrest him. And so it was that 15 days before Christmas, he was blind drunk and hurtling in his ute towards Worts. She died from multiple head injuries at the scene. “No family should have to endure such pain,” said Justice Eric Heenan.
Mitchell, a persistent big drinker, was calculated to have been driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.205 per cent. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced in the West Australian Supreme Court in May. It was decided he would serve six years’ imprisonment but would be eligible for parole. The prosecution argued he should lose his licence for life.
The judge took the view that after he had served a disqualification period of 11 years, it would be in the interests of the community and Mitchell if he were to seek and obtain a licence because it “would enhance his prospects of employment and perhaps allow him to be of greater benefit to the community and to himself and any family”.
4. The Story of the Tongan-born Finney Taufauele contains mixed messages.
Taufauele, 51, won the mercy of the Northern Territory Supreme Court after cracking a man across the face with a pool cue. Last month Chief Justice Brian Martin found that Taufauele, whom he described as a “happy drunk”, had been pushed once too often by a man known as an aggressive drunk and a bully.
The setting was a common room at the mine site in Alyangula, on Groote Eylandt, off Arnhem Land, in the early hours of February 8 this year. Taufauele, a father of five, well-liked, has worked for Groote Eylandt Mining Company for 14 years, operating big machinery in a crew of 25 to 30 people. The bully arrived on the island mine site two years ago and joined Taufauele’s work team. The judge did not name the bully but described him as “much bigger” than Taufauele.
When the bully got a few drinks in him, said the judge, he “picked on a number of people and behaved as a typical bully, standing over people and pushing and looking for fights”. Members of the work crew were drinking and playing pool long into the night and the bully, true to form, started throwing his weight.
On three occasions the bully physically pushed Taufauele, who had never been in a fight in his life. Taufauele had allowed the bully to torment him on previous occasions, but this time he snapped. Taufauele wrapped a pool cue round the bully’s head, opening his scalp and chipping a tooth. The bully went to the police.
Normally, Taufauele would have been sacked but his workmates provided detailed corroborating evidence of the bully’s ways. “Occasionally,” said the judge, “and, perhaps, it should be said rarely, a case comes before the court in which the totality of the circumstances not only justifies, but calls for the exercise of mercy by way of fully suspending a sentence. Yours is one of those cases.”
Taufauele, who has been an Australian citizen for 23 years, is back at work at Gemco and has been promoted to a full-time supervisor. The bully has been sacked.
Tougher stance on alcohol will protect our children
Adele Horin; 29/11/08
For years, the hapless Department of Community Services has been a whipping boy for societal ills that go far deeper and broader. As most Australians got richer, the department’s overwhelmed workers were left to deal with crushing numbers of struggling families and damaged children left in prosperity’s wake. In the middle of boom times, cries for help to DOCS rose inexorably until a staggering 303,000 calls about children at risk were logged in 2007-08, up from 160,000 just six years earlier. It is not DOCS that failed; successive state and federal governments failed to tackle the causes of child abuse and neglect – poverty, poor education, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and mental illness… As well, if governments were serious and brave, they would tackle one of the major causes of child abuse and neglect – the nation’s love affair with alcohol.
Weak brakes v strong engines: identifying why people take certain drugs
Lisa Pryor; 29/11/08
‘How could someone with plenty to live for feel desperate enough to try drugs?” If you have ever asked yourself this question, you are thinking about drugs the wrong way. If you divide people into two categories, those who are well-adjusted because they get blotto on beer and those who are screwy because they dabble in evil drugs like ecstasy, you are wrong too. Science suggests that choosing pills over alcohol may not be related to a defective derro gene after all. In fact, some of the traits we encourage in upstanding young citizens are the same qualities which lead them to drug use. Perhaps I am indulging in the kind of extrapolation abhorrent to academics, but that was my take on a symposium on personality and drug use presented at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs Conference this week.