Freedom from lockdown but shackled to alcohol: How Australia’s glorification of alcohol is damaging to public health

A man's hand holding glass of alcohol. Photography by Santeri Viinamäki/Wikipedia

Dr Michelle I Jongenelis – Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director, Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change

I write this piece knowing that many in Australia will not respond favourably to the words that follow. I may be called a ‘party pooper’, a ‘killjoy’, or a ‘wowser’. Someone who is complicit in the ‘nanny state’. According to federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, I should “lighten up”.

Despite this, it is important to comment on a disappointing observation that I and others in public health have made this week.

The media coverage of ‘Freedom Day’ in New South Wales featured numerous jubilant scenes. People lining up outside Kmart to shop as the clock struck 12am. Hairdressers opening their doors at midnight to tend to split ends and greys. No doubt joyous experiences for customers and businesses alike.

But it is the images of our politicians, those elected (and non-elected) officials, that has been most disappointing. Images that will no doubt be replicated in about a month’s time when Victoria emerges from being the most locked down city in the world.

The images I’m referring to are those of the New South Wales Premier and his Ministers at the pub. Of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese sculling a schooner in 10 seconds. Apparently, your first priority after coming out of months of lockdown should be to head out for a drink. It’s what you do if you’re a “true Aussie”. Do not pass go, do not visit your family, but be sure to collect $200 from the ATM.

According to this piece, beer was mentioned at least 14 times at Monday’s New South Wales press conference, which was held at a pub. This piece went as far as to say that the theme of the press conference was “more about business and beer than health”. At the press conference, Deputy Premier Paul Toole claimed that Premier Perrottet would “shout everyone a beer if you’re here after 11am”. Deputy Premier Toole even decided to change the name of beer to “freedom frothy“.

You would be forgiven for thinking that on Monday in New South Wales, the only thing on people’s minds was having a drink, even though alcohol has been classified as an essential good throughout lockdown. That’s right, this harmful commodity, one that contributes to 3 million deaths worldwide each year and over 200 disease and injury outcomes, one that is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, could easily be accessed throughout the lockdown.

It therefore isn’t surprising that a recently released report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed an 8.3 per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths. A recent report from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education shows a significant increase in household spending on alcoholic beverages. Yet, according to Perrotet, “It’s been 100 days of blood, sweat and no beers”. I beg to differ.

To see our leaders readily link alcohol with freedom by making the pub one of their first ports of call on “Freedom Day” propagates the myth that alcohol is an essential part of Australian culture and further embeds alcohol as a supposedly critical part of our society. The images link drinking with fun and reward, as illustrated by this quote from Perrotet: “But look, I just want everyone to go out and have fun and enjoy the day, because you’ve earned it. And, you know, have a beer.”

The idea that to abstain is to be un-Australian or that one must have a very good excuse if you are not drinking on a night (or morning) out is something we public health professionals are trying to eradicate. This idea perpetuates a powerful social norm that results in people drinking for fear of social exclusion.

As Andy Moore, CEO of Hello Sunday Morning, noted:

This kind of messaging is not helpful. It normalises alcohol in our society and makes it harder for people struggling to come forward and get the help they need. There are many exciting things that this freedom brings. Why does it need to focus on alcohol?

And according to Shanna Whan, CEO and Founder of Sober in the Country:

For those who’ve woken up to being told (on repeat) since 5 am during endless national live TV crosses by anchors clutching schooners that breakfast drinking is a “must do” on #freedomday – no, actually, it isn’t a “must do.”

…nor is it okay that politicians continue to use alcohol and pubs re-opening as their populist and predictable dangling carrot of choice.

Devoting air time to pubs and beers meant air time was not given to many other businesses that were impacted by the months-long lockdown. A more appropriate scene for a Freedom Day photo opp would have been a local café. Instead of New South Wales Treasurer Matt Kean encouraging residents to “go down to your local pub and have a beer”, he should have encouraged grandparents, parents, children, and friends to reconnect over a shared meal.

 Alcohol should not have been the focus of “Freedom Day”.

The images broadcast should have featured families reunited after months of no physical contact. Something akin to the opening and closing scenes of Love Actually. The characters weren’t at the pub while their loved ones landed at Heathrow airport. Their first stop was the arms of their family and friends.

So, instead of ‘get on the beers’ (a phrase coined by Victorian Premier Dan Andrews), I say ‘get on the walks’. ‘Get on the brunches, lunches, and dinners’. ‘Get on the live outdoor music’.

Get on everything that freedom from lockdown has to offer. I can guarantee it’s much more than a freedom frothy.


Image: A man’s hand holding glass of alcohol. Photograph by Santeri Viinamäki/Wikipedia

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