By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO
Opinion piece first published in the Herald Sun newspaper on 22 December 2014.
I was on a flight from Melbourne to Byron Bay a few months ago when I noticed two women across the aisle drinking Smirnoff Ice. "So what?" you might say. "They were probably enjoying the last or first few hours of a well-deserved holiday."
Perhaps. But what concerned me most was that it was before 10am in the morning and they were accompanied by three young children who were seated directly in front of me.
As the flight progressed, and the women kept drinking, they got louder and louder as they commented on one of the little girl’s drawings.
Meanwhile, I sat and wondered when it became acceptable to start drinking before 10am, especially in front of children? And I asked myself what is happening when people can't get through a short flight without a drink?
I wondered what type of culture we are creating for children today and how that will shape and influence the type of drinkers they will become.
VicHealth research has shown that drinking is seen as normal in most social situations, from funerals to children's birthday parties, to sports events and everything in between. In fact, the only places where Australians think it’s not right to drink are at church, a baby shower and a study group.
This shows that we need to re-examine and address the values and norms that shape our drinking culture.
Over the next period, there will be many opportunities for Victorians to celebrate Christmas and the New Year with family and friends, but we need to stop and think if alcohol should be present in each and every setting.
Do we want children to grow up thinking its normal that a slab of beer is the natural accompaniment to every barbecue? Or that we can’t watch the cricket without a few stubbies to hand, or even get through an early morning flight without a drink?
Research funded by VicHealth this year shows that compared to older age groups, Victorians in their late teens and twenties are more likely to drink in a manner that puts them at risk of injury from a single drinking occasion.
While the majority of Victorians view alcohol positively, drinking in Victoria appears to be much more entrenched among those aged 16-29.
Two-thirds of young Victorians report drinking at levels that put them at risk of injury from a single drinking occasion and over half believe getting drunk to the point of losing balance every now and then is not a problem.
While the influence of peers on drinking behaviour is pronounced, young Victorians' drinking habits are also going to be shaped by their environment and what they see as normal.
For the three young children seated in front of me on that flight, their attitudes towards drinking are already being formed and unfortunately the outlook isn’t good.
There's no doubt that for most of us alcohol is going to feature in almost every aspect of our lives. We use it as a way to relax, to connect with people, to celebrate our achievements, commiserate loss and to enjoy life. But it’s costing the community dearly.
Alcohol-related harm – including crime and violence, medical treatment, loss of productivity and death – costs Victorian taxpayers $4.3 billion every year. It's also responsible for more deaths among Australian young people than any other drug.
We know that Victorians tend to drink more alcohol during the summer months, particularly due to the number of celebratory events such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Australia Day. We also know that the Christmas period and the remainder of summer is a peak time for alcohol-related harm, including hospital admissions to the emergency department.
We want all Victorians, young and old, to know that while it’s fine to have a drink or two when socialising at events, it's normal and quite acceptable to take it easy and get the most out of spending time with friends and loved ones this holiday season.
Over the coming weeks, readers around Victoria will notice the two colourful 'faces' of VicHealth's No Excuse Needed campaign – Marathon Millie and Snake-eye Stevie – reminding people at bus and tram stops, in cinemas and on the radio, that you don’t have to get drunk in order to have a good time and you don't need to make up a silly excuse to avoid having another drink.
As we all look to 2015, let's make a conscious effort to move towards a culture where drinking before 10am in the morning in front of children is no longer acceptable and where everyone feels comfortable to say when they’ve had enough and no longer believe they have to make up excuses to avoid having another drink.