Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Its enough to make you drink…

whisky-gentry-styleWhenever the debate turns to the war on drugs, one of the most common retorts (by both sides oddly enough) is that we already allow legal consumption of Alcohol. Which is true enough, except there are a number of odd little restrictions and punishments on drinkers for reasons that generally defy explanation.

First up is the so called ‘sin’ taxes, making every drink you buy, or cigarette you smoke significantly more expensive. This is allowed and accepted in part because these drugs both cause significant social and health care costs, but there’s a larger element of simply being an easy target. Drinkers and smokers can be freely pegged by government for funds, for almost none will stand up for them as a group (not even the many politicians who enjoy a tipple) and amongst some their own abstinence flows into a desire to publicly show their dissaproval and encourage force others to also stop. How else to explain ridiculous ideas such as graphic warnings on alcohol similar to those found on cigarette packets. What are they going to show ? people having a good time? People passed out? The PM’s extensive wine cellar? Most however accept the penalty and continue their behaviour as before (anyone who thinks the cost be it for alco-pops or cigarettes is changing behaviour doesn’t under stand their species. Instead people simply substitute. Straight spirits mixed at home instead of pre-mixed ones. And for the addict smoker it is simply a minor consideration compared to the urge in their body and mind to continue their habit.)

Far less understandable however are the odd laws that pop up around the service of alcohol. The Responsible Service of Alcohol in the ACT for instance punishes drinkers of good whisky. Though I’ve been in some pubs that don’t do so, most places under the RSA will force you to put at least something in the glass along with your whisky, either a soda like coke, or at a minimum a single piece of ice. Likewise you can only buy a single shot’s worth, not a double. Why however I don’t know. That single piece of ice will not stop you getting drunk, will not keep you more upright or do anything other than to water down and dilute a nice (and expensive) drink. Some may like their whisky that way, fine, but why must I conform? The bar on double shots is intended to stop large consumption of spirits, but you can of course buy two, or go up to the bar again. Ideally the pubs will stop serving you alcohol if you are too intoxicated (say after a few trips) but the only ones ever refused are the almost paralytic, who are far more likely to be drinking whatever cheap beer they can get their hands on, not an expensive, aged single malt.

Of similar befuddlement is the recent proposal in the ACT to ban drink containers over 560ml in size. This is proposed under the ‘logic’ that “excessively large containers would promote excessive alcohol consumption”, a sure sign that the legislators have never actually been out on the town or into the RSL’s and pubs they are attempting to control. I say this if for no other reason than that a Pint glass is 568ml. So either they are attempting to ban all but 375ml schooner glasses, or more likely don’t even know what size drinks are served today. But that is a simple error likely to be fixed. Far more ridiculously is the attempt to ban stein’s, 1 liter glasses. Now these are big drinks, but as far as I know only one place in town, a gourmet beer brewer Zeirholtz’s in Fyshwick uses steins. Hardly a location of problematic alcohol consumption, or alcohol induced problems. But even when they were (for a limited time) served at the biggest pub in the city, they were hardly a menace. 1 liter is a lot of beer, but it’s also damn heavy, forcing you to sit down, and to take care for your drink. At such a price and size, no one is going to smash their glass into someones head, nor throw it, nor leave it alone. A $3.20 schooner can be easily thrown or smashed with no great cost to the purchaser (at least till the bouncers/cops come). But an $18.00 stein is a whole different matter. The proposed rule therefore is likely to only affect a single outlet with no reputation for trouble, and have zero effect on curbing violence or alcohol abuse in public.

That said, the ACT at least is better positioned than NSW & Victoria who lock patrons out of clubs at 2am. You can continue to drink if you are inside the establishment, but you can not change to a new place, or even go outside to meet a friend/partner and return. The idea is that it stops people drinking earlier, but instead people simply respond by drinking more sooner (so they get far more drunk) and getting angry/annoyed when full of grog and unable to join their friends. Despite clear anecdotal evidence that neither proposal has curbed the excesses of most young people’s friday/saturday night shuffle, we can probably expect it to be introduced here in time.

There are many serious problems with alcohol abuse in this country. Teen drinking is a real concern (stunting growing brains), and no one likes running into a near paralytic drunk who wants to yell at or pick a fight with you. We do need laws to control and regulate its service, but it is amazing how few of these laws (lock outs, watered whisky, no steins) have anything to do with the actual problem or likelyhood of stopping problem drinking. The most common drink, the schooner of cheap beer is the source of 90% of the problems. But its ubiquitousness also means it can’t be targeted, so instead gourmet beer and whisky drinkers get punished. Any time government acts to change or introduce new laws regarding social behaviour, it needs to make sure it does so with the greatest possible evidence and understanding of the practical effects of its actions. Recent legislation at both a state (well territory) and federal level however proves that requirement is not being met. And about time I must say for a post on whisky, given its role in the masthead.

Next post »