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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. ( 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:

UK: 6.4%
Australia: 6.2%
France: 4.5%
Portugal: 4.1%
Spain: 1.1%
Italy: 0.5%

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.
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.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. Perhaps, and this is mere speculation, cultures with a strong masculine/feminine distinction (like Italy or Spain) have other avenues- outside of drinking – to demonstrate their masculinity. An Italian man can dress smartly, display charm and romance. Us Antipodeans, lacking these avenues (I can’t speak for the British man) are forced to demonstrate our masculinity through base drinking. These big drinkers are not necessarily unlucky in love. Why do women tolerate it ?

    1. Further to the above point, I don’t mean to suggest that strong gender roles (such as in Italy or Spain) are necessarily desirable. Just that they do in fact differ between cultures.

      Secondly, perhaps binge-drinking is not masculine per se. This is a meaning we often ascribe to it, but it need not be framed in such terms. It’s just the heavy consumption of a substance after all.

      Antipodeans drink a lot – we perhaps shouldn’t, but we do. And as alluded to already, we also have less well defined gender roles, and in NZ’s case (which also has a strong drinking culture) we were one of the first countries to put in place universal suffrage. In NZ and Australia, men and women socialise together and often. We go to the footy together, we go out together, we are often great mates. NZ and Australian men also drink a lot, so with the gap between what a women ‘should and shouldn’t’ do narrowing (which is a good thing), why would we not expect drinking to increase amongst all New Zealanders and Australians irrespective of gender? There is less risk of not looking ‘lady-like’.

      Or perhaps masculinity has little to do with it. It could just as well be argued that we drink because we lack refined cultural traditions of relating to each other socially. Sadly, a large number of NZ men (me included) find it difficult to express themselves without a drink: we can’t dance, we can’t sing, we cant express emotion at the game, cant ‘chat-up’ someone at a bar, can’t talk to a stranger; can’t put our arm around our mate and tell him/her what they mean to us without alcohol. In short, we struggle to do many of the things that makes life so much fun.

      At the risk of essentializing, it has been my observation (having spent much time in Argentina) that these are the kinds of things that an average Argentine man could muster on a week night (and to some extend an American) without so much as a drink on board.

      Alcohol is a means to an ‘end’ of social bonding that we all crave; not an end in itself. If we wish to get off the binge, we antipodeans have to first address our cultural cringe.

    2. Italian men are also more likely to engage in sexual harrassment and assault, chiefly in the form of “groping”, and more likely to get away with it, as part of a culture in which women are expected to tolerate a high frequency of unwanted sexual advances.

  2. Your writer has said that the rules brought into New South Wales are going to target party people and – Shock! Horror! – reduce the availability of alcohol.

    According to the critics, this is going to be the end of civilisation as we know it. But will it?

    Let’s look at the new rules:

    1 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;

    My nose bleeds for the poor party people who would be disadvantaged by a 1:30pm lockout. How devastating to think that people would be forced to have their last drink at 3 in the morning.

    2 New state-wide 10pm closing time for all bottle shops and liquor stores;

    Fancy insisting that people will not be able to buy liquor in bottle shops after 10pm! Oh the oppression of it!

    3 Community awareness and media campaign to address the culture of binge drinking and the associated drug and alcohol related violence;

    Imagine taking a stand against violence! Fancy addressing the culture of binge drinking!

    4 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;

    Draconian, isn’t it? Problem venues or venues in problem areas will have to pay more for liquor licences and will be more tightly supervised by the authorities.

    • A precinct-wide freeze on liquor licences for new pubs and clubs will be introduced.

    No extra liquor licences! The place is awash with liquor outlets already, so we don’t need any more.

    In short, the proposals of the New South Wales government are remarkably moderate, and could hardly affect the average party-goer.

  3. Tever, thanks for your reflections! I do agree with you that Australians have very few ways to express their masculinity, except for sports, and that is fueled with gambling and alcohol, and that Australians have few well defined cultural traditions, which may be more important indeed than the masculinity.

    A new study showed that Australians are not aware either of the safe-drinking guidelines.

    It is quite remarkable that the safe drinking standards are the same in Australia for men and women, while in countries like the Netherlands it is less for women and elderly people because of differences in metabolism.

    Michael Glass, I agree with you that the regulations are not that shocking, but still one can wonder how much the government should these things and how much it is people’s own responsibility and choice how much and when they drink.

    1. “It is quite remarkable that the safe drinking standards are the same in Australia for men and women”

      Only because the NHMRC guidelines were rather illogically changed, in 2009, with male “safe drinking” amounts reduced to match the female recommendations. This was based on unrealistic lifetime risk assessments that took into account factors such as drink-driving and alcohol-fuelled violence, which are relevant only to a minority of drinkers. Here’s an article putting Australian alcohol consumption in a more realistic perspective:

  4. The quoted statistics are here being viewed in what appears to be unhelpful isolation. What the WHO stats actually tell us is that of the countries examined in this article (UK, Australia, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy), Australia’s per capita alcohol consumption is actually the lowest. Italians drink more wine, Australians more beer, which is lower in alcohol. Australia may have more recognised “problem drinkers” as a proportion of the population, but this is still a relatively small number of people, and statistics for this category are likely to be more reliable than those for Italy. For Australians to switch to Italian drinking habits would mean more Australians drinking more and stronger alcohol. In fact the opposite appears to be happening as the stats show that Australians are gradually reducing their alcohol consumption, which is arguably a preferable situation. Public “binge drinking” appears to be most prominently associated with a particular age group and social class, although there’s a significant group of “private” middle-class wine drinkers who regularly drink more than is recommended. Generally speaking a situation in which most people drink moderately, with a small number of habitual drunks, may be preferable to a situation where much of the population is drinking more than is recommended, which seems to be the case in countries like France and Italy. On the other hand, the health stats don’t show that those countries are undergoing any kind of alcohol-related health crisis, so perhaps we need to just pay less attention to the nanny-staters and their misleading moral panics.

  5. Thanks Nikolas, for your comments. I agree with you that it is very hard to determine what the best measure is for the alcohol consumption of a country. It might be harder to overcome an alcohol addiction in a culture where drinking is the norm, than in a culture where drinking is related to a certain class and age group. I don’t want to say that the Italians are the standard in both ideal masculinity and ideal drinking ways. The goal of the post was more to contemplate about values associated with drinking. Cultural differences offer an interesting way to evaluate that.

    And about the drinking standards, I think they are not about what everyone should do, since everyone is different in how they cope with alcohol or other substances. These standards try to determine what would be an absolute safe way to drink to make absolutely sure one doesn’t get dependent.

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