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Health Issues of Alcoholism in Australia

     The following is an analysis of the health issues of ‘alcoholism’ in Australia. This analysis will begin with an overview of the problem as expressed in the statistical data for Australia. Particular attention will be paid to the amounts of alcohol consumed by Australians, but more importantly, the focus will be placed on the ‘consequences’ of the problem. In turn, the overview of the statistical information of the problem will be followed with an analysis of two sociological perspectives. The latter part of this essay will look at the functionalist perspective, and symbolic interactionism as two approaches to deviance that are useful models for explaining alcoholism. It will be argued that as a social phenomenon, alcohol consumption is on the rise in Australia, and at risky or dangerous levels.

     Alcoholism is a health condition that impacts a disproportionately large number of people in most communities. Problem drinking is somewhat hard to define, and it is generally measured not in terms of how much alcohol is consumed or how often, but rather, what kind of consequences result. In Australia, approximately 3,000 individuals day annually because of alcoholism [Chrikritzhs et. al., 1999, 23], and it can be said that left untreated, this is a fatal health problem. Some of the other significant health problems that Australian’s face as a consequence of alcoholism, including serious problems such as liver cirrhosis, inflammation of the gut and pancreas, heart and circulatory problems, sleep disorders, male impotency, eye diseases and conditions, and alcohol dependence. Alcohol misuse also raises the likelihood of contracting cancer, which includes cancer of the mouth, throat and esophagus, breast cancer and bowel cancer [National Health and Medical Research Council, 2007, p. 28-9]. In a survey focusing on South Australia and the health consequences of alcohol, it was recorded that: over 6 750 alcohol-related hospitalizations in South Australia in 2004/05, and 280 alcohol-related deaths in South Australia in 2005 [Pascal, Chikritzhs, and Jones, 2009, p. 11]. Since alcohol influences reasoning, concentration and other brain processes, decision-making reaction time is severely shortened, creating other complications, such as driving disability. In addition, there is an increase in the sum of mental wellbeing concerns connected with alcohol, and there is often a link or connection between substance dependence and other narcotics abuse. Again, because of the diminished capacity for discretion, anyone under the influence of alcohol will make the kind or method of assessments that are far from being in the best interests of the person involved. There are major health risks associated with alcohol consumption in pregnant women, particularly if alcohol is consumed or abused in the first trimester of pregnancy. Alcohol consumption can do serious harm to the pregnancy of a pregnant woman which can end in ‘foetal alcohol syndrome’ in more severe situations. FAS or foetal alcohol syndrome triggers birth defects. Quite many infants born with FAS have physical deformities that very frequently impact the face of the person, and this often leads in reduced mental ability and even retardation [National Preventive Health Task Force (NPHT) 2008, p. 12].

Health Issues of Alcoholism in Australia

Alcoholism is a global epidemic, and Australia is no different. In 2008, the Government of Australia took a series of measures forward to curtail the rise of harmful alcohol intake rates. Australia levied a “excise tax” on pre-mixed spirits to stay in accordance with the same tax threshold on non-mixed spirits. The goal of this initiative was to boost “public health outcomes” in Australia.[Doran and Shakeshaft, 2008, p. 701] What is relevant in this government measure is that it is generally accepted that alcoholism or “alcohol dependence” is an issue in Australia. Indeed, some of the figures on alcohol intake in Australia are troubling.

 In 2006, Australians purchased and consumed just over $ 28.8 Billion dollars, and this is a 47 % increase in consumption per person or per capita from 1997 when sales and consumption was $ 19.6 Billion dollars. In the 2007, the Australian Government commissioned a study to measure the consumption of alcohol, and the resulting report was the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. This was was first published in 2008, and some of the highlights of this report which reflect the current rates of alcohol consumption in Australia, are summarized in the following:

  • PALABLE The proportion of the populace drinking every day fell marginally (from 8.9% to 8.1%) between 2004 and 2007, while the average age at which people obtained their first full serving of alcohol (17 years of age) remained unchanged.
  • Nine in ten Australians aged 14 or older (89.9%) have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, and 82.9% had consumed alcohol in the 12 months preceding the 2007 survey.
  • Nine in every ten Australians aged 14 years or older (89.9%) have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, and 82.9% had used alcohol in the 12 months preceding the 2007 report.
  • One in 17 (5.7%) admitted verbal harassment when under the influence of alcohol.
  • The percentage of teens consuming at least a week was about 22 per cent.
  • Males aged 20-29 years (17.2%) were more prone to consume alcohol at risk or high risk of short-term injury at least on a daily basis.
  • More than one quarter (26.3 per cent) of 14-19-year-olds are at risk of alcohol-related short-term disturbance at least once a month in the previous 12 months; higher among females of this age (28.3 per cent) than males (24.5 percent).
  • Overall, at least one third (34.6 per cent) of people 14 years of age or older are at risk or at elevated risk of alcohol-related damage in the short term during the preceding 12 months [Australian Institution of Health and Wellbeing, 2008].

In regard to the most general data about the rates of consumption, Australians drink a lot of alcohol and consume this with a concerning rate of frequency as well. In the year of this survey, the per capita consumption of alcohol for Australians over the age of 15 years is close to 10 liters, and this is, by world standards, pretty high. And, among Australians the use of alcohol is very widespread. For example, just greater than 90% of all Australians over the age of 14 in 2007 consumed alcohol over their lifetime (an estimated 14.2 million people), 40% drank alcohol weekly, and 8% drank daily [Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008].  Although, many  young Australians consume alcohol regularly, the highest proportion of daily drinkers in 2007 were individuals who were 60 years old  and older [Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008].

     Among the various populations represented in the statistical overview of alcohol consumption, some demographic groups raise more concern than others. There has been a drastic rise, for example, in consumption of alcohol among youth or young people, and this is particularly true of ‘binge drinking’. As the term itself suggests, binge drinking is excessive alcohol consumption but over a short duration, such as a single evening or a weekend. Youth have a tendency to be at risk more as ‘binge’ drinkers, than as individuals who will drink daily and for a prolonged period. It should also be stressed that binge drinking is also very risky. Although some of the long-term consequences in terms of health are not associated with binge drinking, there is a considerable risk of death doing this, and likewise, a variety of potential problems such as alcohol poisoning. Further, and aside from the short-term problems, individuals who start consuming alcohol at a young age, are more likely to develop advanced problems when they are older [National Health and Medical Research Council, 2007, p. 28-9]. Further, the earlier an individual drinks, according to Australian data, the more frequent or greater volume, they will eventually consume in their adult years [Maggs and Schulenberg, 2005, p. 31]. Other problems concerning early-onset alcohol consumption include social, health and finally, mental health issues [National Health and Medical Research Council, 2007, p. 28-9]. Some of the more significant statistical findings of alcohol consumption among youth, are as follows. First, is the onset age of drinking. In Australia, over 90 percent of all youth have at least tried alcohol by the time they reach the age of fourteen and the majority of youth have had a full drink by the moment they hit the age of 16 [National Health and Medical Research Council, 2007, p. 28-9]. This is important when you remember the 2004 in Australia, fourteen-year-olds were more than twice as likely to have had a drink than youth at the same age during the 1940’s and the 1950’s. [Roche, Bywood, Borlagdan, Lunney, Freeman, Lawton, Tovell and Nicholas, 2007, p.32].

     Regarding specific demographic populations in Australia, aside from youth, women and the aboriginal population likewise have experienced problems with alcohol consumption, and also, these two groups have also showed an increase rate of use as well. With respect to women in Australia, 12 % of all adult females drink at rates that are considered to be high risk levels. In addition, these beverages have risen at risk/high risk rate. Since 1995, the number of woman perpetrators has grown faster than the number of males. Since 1995, the percentage of women who have been drinking at risk/high risk has risen from 6.2% to 11.7% in three National Health Surveys. By comparison, the rate of growth for males was from 10.3 per cent to 15.2 per cent [Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008]. As for the Aboriginal community, it is a fact in Australia that individuals residing in rural or remote regions are more prone to drink at risk or at high risk than individuals living in greater or more urban communities. Further, although a smaller proportion overall of Indigenous people drink alcohol compared to the general population, it is also the case for those who drink in the Aboriginal community, do so at higher levels [Chikritzhs and Brady, 2006, p. 131].

     While the rates of consumption are increasing in Australia, it is also the case that many of the consequences of alcoholism have likewise been measured in recent years. It is the problems that brought about by alcoholism that are the main concern of public health policymakers in the Australian government. And, likewise, some of the data that has been collected in recent years on the consequences of alcohol consumption, are alarming. With regard to alcohol consumption at rates which are considered harmful or dangerous, there are a number of problems that arise that will be outlined in the following, and these include the social and economic costs, an increase in alcohol-related crimes, and finally, the overall impact that alcoholism has on the Australian economy. This latter measure is an important one and the following statistical survey will look at that consequence of the overconsumption of alcohol first, and then at some of the statistics concerning some of the health-related problems along with the social problems caused by alcoholism.

     The overall cost to the economy of Australia because of alcoholism, is measured in terms of a variety of costs. These include the health-care costs for alcohol-related illnesses, the cost to taxpayers of criminal related activities, the cost of treatments and rehabilitation’s, the cost of premature death and finally, the loss of time and productivity in the workplace due to alcohol-related abuse. The sum total of all of these costs in 2004 was $ 15.3 Billion [Collins and Lapsley, 2008, p. 19]. As a public health issue, it can be said that alcoholism is unquestionably a problem when looked at in these terms. One can imagine, for example, how many alternative ways there are to spend the fifteen billion dollars, such as health-care or education. One can see these costs add up when one considers, for example, that up to a quarter of all traffic fatalities in Australia involve a driver who was intoxicated beyond the legal limit [Taylor and Carroll, 2001, p.21. ]. Likewise with the issue of crime. There is a significant association between alcohol abuse and violent crime, and for example, in a 2003 study it was demonstrated that three out of every ten murders were committed by someone under the influence of alcohol [Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, 2008]. In a study conducted through a holiday period of 2007, it was reported that 2.2 million Australians experienced physical or verbal abuse from someone under the influence of alcohol. And, in the same period, it was also reported that thirty percent of teenagers feared for their own personal safety because of someone around them who was under the influence of alcohol, and similarly, and from the same study, forty-five percent of teenagers between the age of 14 and 17 claimed that they knew someone who was either harmed or injured because of their excessive use of alcohol [Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, 2008].

     Having now examined the statistics of alcohol abuse in Australia, the following will analyze the problem from a sociological perspective. In the sociological literature, alcoholism generally falls under the general behaviour category of ‘deviance’. Rather than approach the problem as one that is an isolated problem of an individual, sociology generally provides a framework for alcoholism that includes the wider social network of the individual. The following will examine (1) general theories of deviance as they relate to alcoholism, including traditional functionalist approaches alongside more current theories, and in turn (2) apply the theoretical frameworks in question to the forms of deviance in question.  

     Both measuring and defining alcohol abuse as deviance are complex problems. Further, one cannot measure the amount of deviance without first defining the very phenomenon which is to be measured in the first place. Defining deviance within a sociological framework involves a number of variables. Among the central variables in question, public perception or social values, beliefs, norms, etc., rank as being the most central [Kelly, Ed., 1996: 50].  In other words, whether we explain these social attitudes in terms of ‘social class’ or in terms of ‘symbolic interactionism’ (labeling theory), it is these very attitudes that are the measure of deviance.   One of the problems in terms of relying on social attitudes, even though social theory is dependent on these attitudes, is the fact that these are shaped by ‘external’ factors, and moreover, these attitudes are often erroneous. For example, while most Australians believe that crime is increasing, it is true that it is decreasing when the instances of crime are measured on a per/capita basis. In other words, when considering what society regards as deviant, one also has to consider those social forces such as the ‘media’ which go into shaping or determining the social attitudes in question. The following will bear this problem in mind in regard to discerning some of the central theories which explain the social attitudes which shape our definitions of deviance.

     That deviance is an extension of social attitudes, is a given in social theory. Among the more traditional or ‘functional’ schools of thought in regard to deviance, such an idea is axiomatic. For example, one prominent theorist, Emile Durkheim, maintained that deviance is entirely dependent on “social condemnation” and “common indignation” [Gomme, 1998: 71]. In general, social phenomenon are explained in a functionalist framework in terms of understanding a perceived “goal” [Gomme, 1998: 63]. Phrased in simple terms, burglaries can often be explained in terms of the goal of accumulating wealth, and in turn, a corollary to such an explanation might point to the low social strata from which most common burglars come from (corporate theft is another social strata but with a similar goal). Further, Durkheim and functionalist school argue that deviance or deviant behaviour like excessive drinking occur to greater degrees along with a number of social transformations which cause a general state of turmoil [Kelly, Ed., 1996: 50-1].  Such factors in this sense include: “social disintegration, social deregulation, and rapid social and economic change” [Gomme, 1998: 73]. Concerning alcoholism in particular, the sociologist, Albert Cohen’s theory concerning “status frustration” [Gomme, 1998: 68-9] does much to explain some the causal variables of the alcoholism in question.   In the statistics examined in this analysis, deviance was associated with instances of murder, poverty and social class were central variables. If the ‘norm’ in Australia  are those values of the “middle class” [Gomme, 1998: 68], and if social frustration occurs as a result of an inability to achieve these norms, then, some preliminary understanding of the problem of alcoholism as a social phenomenon, can be ascertained through a functionalist paradigm. If, for example, alcohol abuse is on the rise among individuals (people in their 20’s) and these individuals are being systemically kept out of the norm (e.g. they have significantly higher rates of unemployment), then, functionalism could also serve to explain their behaviour in terms of the general degree of social and economic disintegration, but also the frustration that ensues when individuals realize that the ‘norm’ is beyond their discernible reach.

     There are, however, a range of drawbacks on the functionalist method. For example, how are these attitudes of the ‘norm’ or the ‘social attitudes’ both shaped, and in turn, perceived by those who can be said to be frustrated by them? Toward this end of explanation, the theory of ‘symbolic interactionism’, which is a method developed by George Herbert Mead, does much to explain both the social construction of “labeling” forms of “deviance” [Gomme, 1998: 99], but this paradigm also explains the social dynamics which are at the root of how such attitudes are disseminated, and thus acquired by any given individual in a wider social network.  Expressed in terms of “social control theory”, these symbolic meanings can be viewed to cause both “inner” and “outer” controls [Gomme, 1998: 80ff.]. An inner control are those values which an individual has been socialized within, and which are assimilated and appropriated as one’s own, and outer controls are those which are more direct – the symbolic and real factors of the ‘law’ as a mainstream form of establishing what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ conduct, for example.  Travis Hirschi, for example, outlines the complexity of socialization whereby values on a macro-level of the family and a given social class or ethnic group, become assimilated by those individuals who have been raised in those particular environments [Gomme, 1998: 82-3]. In general, the theories in question relate to one another with respect to the centrality of ‘socialization’ as a means of explaining certain forms of behaviour, such as the ‘deviance’ involved with alcohol abuse and the accompanying behaviours. In short, the means by which these theories explain behaviour, is toward drawing upon the social or societal variables which both go into explaining the various motives behind forms of behaviour, but also toward explaining particular social backgrounds of the individuals involved. The principal differences in these theories, can be expressed more in terms of emphasis – that is, where the social forces which explain a particular ‘goal’ in functionalism (Durkheim)  is emphasized, by contrast, in ‘power control’ theory, the emphasis is posited or placed on those social forces that determine aspects such as ‘class structure’ or the process of social marginalization (Mead). Defining deviance is impossible without considering how society defines deviance – deviance, so to speak, is in the eyes of the beholder.   In general, this paper has both outlined four particular instances of deviance, and in turn, demonstrated how these forms of deviance can be termed as such, precisely because they are activities which exist outside or beyond the confines of what is socially considered normal.

     In conclusion, this analysis has provided a statistical overview of the problem of alcoholism in Australia, and in turn, described two succinct approaches to the problem from social theory. This analysis used ‘functionalism’ and ‘symbolic interactionism’ as two sociological models of explanation for alcoholism. It was argued that while alcoholism is increasing in Australia, there is no apparent single causal explanation for this increase. However, using a mixture of ideas, a lot of the issue has been clarified in terms of the social background in which it arises and flourishes. Alcoholism, is called a ‘family disease’, both because it involves the entire family and because dynamics within the family often have a strong contributing influence on the problem.

Works Cited
  • Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation 2008, Survey: Aussie drinking habits create climate of fear, media release, 4 Feb., www.aerf.com.au
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008, 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: State and Territory Supplement. AIHW cat. no. PHE 102. Canberra: AIHW
  • Chikritzhs, T. and M Brady, 2006, Fact or fiction? A critique of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2002, Drug and Alcohol Review, 25, pp. 277-287.
  • Chrikritzhs et. al., 1999, Alcohol-caused deaths and hospitalizations in Australia 1990-97, National Alcohol Indicators Bulletin No. 1:  National Drug Research Institute and Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Center.
  • Collins T & Lapsley H (2008) The cost of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian Society in 2004-2005 Summary Version, National Drug Strategy Monograph Series No. 66. Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Health & Aging.
  • Doran, Christopher and Shakeshaft, Anthony. 2008. “Using taxes to curb drinking in Australia .” The Lancet. Aug 30-Sep 5, Vol. 372, Iss. 9640; pg. 701.
  • Gomme, Ian McDermid, 1998, The Shadow Line. Deviance and Crime, Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company.
  • Kelly, Delos H.(Ed.), 1996, Deviant Behavior.  Fifth Edition, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Maggs, J.L. and Schulenberg, J.E. 2005, Initiation and course of alcohol consumption among adolescents and young adults, Recent Developments in Alcoholism 17, pp.29-47.
  • National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2007, Australian alcohol guidelines for low-risk drinking: draft for public consultation, October, p.28-29, www.nhmrc.gov.au.
  • National Preventative Health Taskforce (NPHT) 2008, Technical Report No. 3: Preventing Alcohol-related Harm in Australia: a window of opportunity, Commonwealth of Australia.
  • Pascal, R., Chikritzhs, T. & Jones, P. (2009). Trends in estimated alcohol-attributable deaths and hospitalisations in Australia, 1996-2005. National Alcohol Indicators, Bulletin No.12. Perth: National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology.
  • Roche, A.M.,  P Bywood, J Borlagdan, B Lunney, T Freeman, L Lawton, A Tovell and R Nicholas, 2007, Young people & alcohol: the role of cultural influences, report, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, Adelaide.
  • The Health Problem of Alcoholism in Australia: A Statistical Overview and Sociological Analysis.

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