How booze culture has changed

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After 11 days of not drinking, the mental fog lifted for Brigid Delaney. 

Hangovers, she realised, did not just affect her body, they affected her mind.

“My concentration and energy levels are through the roof,” she exclaims in her new book Wellmania. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so sharp. My brain is a Rolls-Royce, purring and preening, just out of the factory in mint condition.”

Delaney, in her exploration of feeling “well” and her attitudes to her body and what she put in it it, is not alone. 

New research by DrinkWise has found that the attitudes of Australians towards alcohol has shifted significantly in 10 years.

Published on Monday, the results revealed that 20 per cent of Australians are abstaining from alcohol all together (an increase from 11 per cent in 2007), while “more people are drinking moderately and less people are drinking to excess” with 63 per cent rarely drinking more than two standard drinks (up from 48 per cent in 2007).

 “I think part of the conversation around alcohol now is very different to what it was and it’s evolving to be a more mature conversation,” says GP and DrinkWise ambassador, Dr Andrew Rochford.

During her period of abstaining from alcohol after years of excess that left her feeling “coarse” and “the opposite of of vitality”, Delaney becomes aware of how alcohol once affected her behaviour.

At parties she attends, she observes, “not without horror (did I used to be like that?), the way people would deteriorate over the course of the night”.

With the rise of social media in the last 10 years, it’s not just at parties that people are concerned about appearances.

Fewer young adults are drinking to excess to (59 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds said they had never consumed alcohol while 18 to 24-year-olds were drinking less overall). While social media is often blamed for its negative impact, in this instance, it might be having a positive influence, Rochford says.

“It’s no longer a badge of honour to post images of yourself being wasted, doing stupid stuff,” he says. “People are trying to project a more positive image of themselves, especially people who are in the high-risk drinking age.” 

DrinkWise CEO John Scott agrees. 

“They seem to be very aware of how they curate their lifestyles on social media,” Scott says. “When we sent our researchers out to talk, particularly to young people, about what they do and why they do it, there is that emphasis on them taking care of themselves and going to the gym or seeing Sunday morning.”

Could this be a counter-trend to the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease in Australia?

“We are getting to a point where the impact of a pretty comfortable lifestyle is starting to play itself out in chronic disease rates – obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease … most things have a tipping point, and it gets to a point where younger generations go ‘I don’t want to spend the last years of my life being unwell’,” Rochford says, before adding: “It’s hard to project liver disease onto a 25-year-old because that’s a 55-year-old man’s problem who has drunk his entire life. For them, alcohol is different – it’s ‘I don’t want to wake up with bags under my eyes’, ‘I don’t want to not be able to go to the gym’, ‘I don’t want the next selfie to look bad’ ‘I want to be positive and healthy and take care of my life’.” 

The abstinence is being driven by “what do I want to project to the world?” says Rochford, which is more of an “aesthetic health” than a “chronic health” thinking.

“People used to post photos of themselves being ‘sh-tfaced’ but I think a lot of work has been done – by parents and through schools – that those images really stay with you,” says Scott. “They’re a bit more classy now when it comes to alcohol. Whether it’s vanity or genuine, people are taking care of their health a lot more.”

There is also the growing trend towards healthier, “cleaner” living which has made less or no alcohol more socially acceptable, changing demographics in Australia which mean – among certain groups and religions – alcohol is avoided and people who didn’t like how alcohol affected them when they drank to excess have either chosen to abstain or chosen to significantly cut back.

It is not “job-over yet” though, Scott insists and alcohol still poses a problem for emergency departments, individuals and our broader community alike.

“But this research tends to suggest we’re more defined by moderation than excess – if you went back 30 years ago most people thought Australia had a very boozy culture – it was almost like a badge of honour that we went ‘yeah, we’re big drinkers here in Australia and we’re proud of it.’ I think that’s changed,” Scott says.

“We still tend to associate Australia with having a drinking culture but it’s about what type of culture is that – is it one where we drink to socialise with our friends, we don’t drink to excess, we enjoy life, it’s a part of us being a sociable country versus a drinking culture where it’s ‘guess what? we can drink more than anyone else on the planet’,” Rochford asks. “That’s the difference; it’s having a positive, healthy attitude towards it rather than an unhealthy, immature attitude towards it. 

“You’re no longer the leper, the outsider if you’re the non-drinker or the driver.”  

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