Do we have a right to drink? On Australian thugs and French hedonists
It has been an interesting week awaiting the announced reforms on the alcohol laws in New South Wales, Australia. After another incident with alcohol fuelled violence where a young boy died due to an unprovoked single punch, the family of this young man, Thomas Kelly, submitted a petition asking for intoxication to be taken into account in sentencing as a mandatory aggravating factor, rather than a mitigating factor, which is now sometimes the case. While the government reflected on what to do about alcohol induced violence, the discussion in the media sparked up high.
1. Should intoxication be an aggravating or mitigating factor?
The man who killed Thomas Kelly was given a reduced sentence because his intoxication counted as a mitigating factor. This is surprising, because as far as I know (see for example the work of Stephen Morse) intoxication is only rarely granted as a mitigating factor in law suits. Although the neuroscientific evidence is mounting with regard to the loss of control on behaviour inhibition and cue sensitisation due to repeated substance use, the law often argues that the first drink was voluntary, and the risks are well known, and so the person is responsible for it. This difference in sentencing might have to do with sympathy. Mostly, alcoholics ask for intoxication to be considered as a mitigating factor, while in this case of alcohol fuelled violence the perpetrator was a binge drinker rather than an alcoholic. One is more inclined to identify oneself with a binge drinker than with an alcoholic, and the effects of an alcohol induced crime seems to derange the otherwise normal life of a binge drinker more than the life of an alcoholic. However, one can argue that both are doing the same harm, and a binge drinker seems to have more control than a chronic alcoholic, since he or she can control their drinking most days of the week (although this is debatable). It seems fair that if intoxication is often not granted as a mitigating factor to chronic alcoholics, it also wouldn’t be for binge drinkers. The state of NSW decided to make the following law changes, following the Kelly families petition:
• Remove voluntary intoxication by drugs or alcohol as a mitigating factor when courts determine sentences; and
• Increase maximum penalties by two years where drugs and/or alcohol are aggravating factors for violent crimes including assault causing grievous bodily harm, reckless bodily harm, assault against police, affray and sexual assault.
Yet, one can argue whether it is fair that intoxication isn’t granted a mitigating factor for chronic alcoholics and binge drinkers. How voluntary is the intoxication of a binge drinker? When I was pregnant, I found out how hard it is to go out for one night and not drink, and this wasn’t because I couldn’t control myself, but because people kept offering drinks. Even when saying them that I was pregnant, people often replied that ‘one drink can’t harm’. There is a lot of social pressure that associates drinking with fun, and there are not many good reasons for refusing a drink without being categorised as non-fun. When you are a young man who wants to hang out with his friends in the weekend, it is very hard not to drink, or even not to drink excessively.
The second factor that courts should take into account is if people know that they act aggressively on alcohol. For some people alcohol acts as a depressant, for some as a stimulant. For most of the alcohol dependent people I interviewed, becoming aggressive happened in a state of intoxication where their memory is also not functioning optimal. One of my respondents described entering his favourite pub, and everyone stared at him in horror. The owner asked him if he didn’t remember what had happened the night before, and offered to show him the security tape of him acting like an animal, assaulting people and breaking down the place. Others described waking up in a police cell, with no idea why they were there. Maybe for first time offenders being violent during intoxication can be considered a mitigating factor.
2. Drunken thugs versus happy party people: do we have a right to drink?
In the case of Thomas Kelly, the victim was a young, friendly looking boy, while the perpetrator looked like a drunken thug, at least on the pictures that circulate of him in the media: tattooed, intoxicated, aggressive. Soon the media divided drinkers in thugs and good party people, with a fear that the thugs would spoil it for the good party people, and that the new alcohol laws would punish everyone. I would like to contest this image, some people have a happy drunk, others a bad drunk, and this is independent of their personality before drinking. Most of the people I interviewed who described being aggressive under influence of alcohol, were normal, charming people in everyday life. As one of the respondents described, in the old movies he used to watch, both the good and the bad guys always drank, but the hero never got drunk, he seemed to be immune for the negative effects of alcohol. He always imagined that he was ‘a good guy’ as well, and that he was immune for the negative effects of alcohol, but this turned out not to be true. The new drinking laws indeed seem to target everyone, there are some laws designed especially for drunken thugs:
• Eight year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted under new one punch laws where the offender is intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol, plus new mandatory minimum sentences for violent assaults where intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol;
• Increasing the maximum sentence to 25 years for the illegal supply and possession of steroids up from two years;
• Enabling Police to impose an immediate CBD precinct ban of up to 48 hours for trouble makers;
• Increased on the spot fines to $1,100 for continued intoxicated and disorderly behaviour disobeying police move on order an increase of more than five times; and
• Free buses running every ten minutes from Kings Cross to the CBD to connect with existing NightRide services on Friday and Saturday nights.
But a substantial amount of laws seem to target the whole group of party people and aims at reducing the availability of alcohol in general:
• Introduction of 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks across an expanded CBD precinct to include Kings Cross to Darling Harbour, The Rocks to Haymarket and Darlinghurst;
• New state-wide 10pm closing time for all bottle shops and liquor stores;
• Community awareness and media campaign to address the culture of binge drinking and the associated drug and alcohol related violence;
• Introduction of a periodic risk-based licencing scheme with higher fees imposed for venues and outlets that have later trading hours, poor compliance histories or are in high risk locations;
• A precinct-wide freeze on liquor licences for new pubs and clubs will be introduced.
These are very surprising rigorous measures that cause much outrage among people that feel that normal people, who are just enjoying a drink are heavily punished by these new laws. Do we have a right to drink? What struck me in most of my interviews, is that alcohol dependent people express that after a while, they can’t imagine anymore how to enjoy life without alcohol. How to spend an evening with friends, or watch a football game without alcohol? Is this true for most people? Can’t we imagine a good night out without non-stop availability of alcohol?
Let us draw a parallel here with the image change of smoking. How fascinating was it to see the social image of smokers change from the ‘Marlboro man’, the cool kids of the class, into social pariahs who stand in the rain with their pathetic cigarette, coughing and suffocating. When new smoking laws gradually disconnected smoking from having a good night out, or from being normal in public places, the image of smokers radically changed, and smoking became way less attractive. Now, I don’t want to argue that we should ban smoking altogether, but let’s investigate the Australian drinking culture a little further and the cultural images associated with alcohol in Australia.
3. A change in drinking culture? Lessons from Southern Europe
As Zinberg has pointed out, we mostly focus on the substance itself, and its effects, but the effects of the substance depends on the properties of the person who takes them, and the setting where someone takes them. What this article suggests, is that we shouldn’t focus on the alcohol as a fuel of violence, but we should focus on the cultural norms that facilitate violence. (https://theconversation.com/king-hits-young-men-masculinity-and-violence-22247) This article questions the images of masculinity that young guys get offered: “media are feeding young men narratives about how men get excitement, success and respect through confrontation”. What I think that should be questioned is the link between masculinity and alcohol, or more in general, the role alcohol has in a society. Several of my respondents described how drinking was part of becoming a man. In this picture, binge drinking fits perfectly: to prove how much a man you are is measured by how much you drink. Respondents described how they started drinking when they got their first job: their boss expected of them to join for after work drinks.
Now let’s compare this to countries with a high masculine image that nevertheless have a very low figure of alcohol use disorders. According to 2004 figures of the WHO, Southern European counties score very low on alcohol use problems. Although mostly France’s drink culture is cited as an example, France and Portugal score relatively high compared to other Southern European countries on alcohol use problems.
So let’s compare the percentages of men with alcohol use problems in different countries:
If we look at the drinking cultures in Southern European countries, that it is mainly focused on wine, which is consumed in a family setting during meals. The consumption is stable during the whole week, and has not the binge pattern you see in Australia and the UK. One does not drink to get drunk. This is often contrasted with the settings in which alcohol is consumed in Australia and the UK which are male or singles-dominated, child-and-family-unfriendly public places dedicated mainly to alcohol consumption. It is often claimed that although the French consume as much saturated fats as the British and consume as much alcohol, their consumption of wine reduces heart diseases. In that sense drinking wine with a meal seems to be healthier than not drinking. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1768013/
So the real question the NSW government should ask is about the cultural presumptions that accompanied alcohol consumption in NSW. Why do people binge drink? With whom and where? Can alcohol consumption be part of a healthy Australian lifestyle? Another topic that arises when looking at the WHO charts, is that Australia has the highest female alcohol dependency of all the countries (2.6%, followed by the Russians). So although the link between masculinity and alcohol can account for the alcohol fuelled violence, very little is known about why women drink, and why Australia scores so high on female alcohol dependency. Any suggestions are welcome.