Monday, February 11, 2013

Anti Anti Anti (alcohol)

Over the last three years, I have kept a bit of an eye on some of the Australian 'debates' about alcohol, harm and responsibility. A piece in Crikey by Bernard Keane last week seemed to spell out some of the strangeness - the sense of talking past each other - in what I have been reading and listening to.

There is a lot to like in the Keane piece. It plays out in fact-check mode. Asks for the numbers, for the evidence, then asks questions of the facts and the claims built on (or somewhat near) those facts. The summary line is that statements made by the 'wowser lobby' about the dangers of rising alcohol use in Australia do not match reality.

Keane uses FARE (the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education) and the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol as sources and targets for his critique. A key point, made around a discussion of the National Health and Medical Research Council's changes to recommended daily alcohol intakes for men and women, is that part of the basis for these limits (two drinks a day for men and women) is in the statistical mindset of epidemiology and population health. Changes to lifetime risk of death or injury, in creeping increments of a 1.7% or 1% chance of death... that is the language, the thinking, Keane critiques.

As he points out, not drinking at all may be little to no marginal benefit compared to moderate drinking. And how risk-free a life do people wish to lead is a valid question to ask. I like butter more than statistics, and I really like statistics.

Keane goes on to ask questions of claims made that both alcohol consumption and alcohol harm are growing in Australia. There is data to support alternate claims, about declines in Australian daily average consumption of alcohol, for example. But Keane's dismissal of economic harm arguments seems to slump back into a lazier kind of argument (blame the models, there cannot be more harm if there is not more drinking).

The key point for me is that the desire, in pieces like Keane's, is more to dismiss than engage the arguments and different positions of others in a debate. They are 'wowsers'. They have a goal to tax alcohol back to economic prohibition. They started with tobacco and are coming for alcohol next, hunting down pleasures one plain-packaged suffocation at a time.

But this is caricature more than debate. You can be concerned about alcohol in Australian society and still like a drink. You do not need to be a wowser to point to real harms, such as cheap alcohol in remote Indigenous communities, or children growing up with an alcoholic parent. You can advocate reform of alcohol taxation (such as whether to tax by value or amount of alcohol) without wanting to tax booze back to a home-brewed, bathtub underground. You certainly do not need to accept (even if only by accepting a framing of the argument) an equivalence of tobacco and alcohol.

Arguing within a frame (set by others) of alcohol as akin to tobacco is a mistake. But an even bigger mistake, for me, is accepting the other frame of only debating how harmful is alcohol, how negative for lifetime risk of death, injury or violence. 'My negative is smaller than your negative' should be left for high-school debating.

Alcohol has benefits for societies and cultures, as well as costs and harms. Both. Always already, as soon as ferment, as soon as bottling - the promise is there of fun, of conversation, of 'human capital' even - but the other side of the promise also. A more sophisticated 'debate' about alcohol would face up to pleasure as frankly as to addiction. Responsible dinner drinking as well as port flagons in a remote camp, or being too drunk to drive a sick child to a hospital emergency ward.

If people want to argue back at new possible controls on alcohol, then limiting the frame to the negative, the debate to degrees of harm, denies the convivial pleasures of fermentation - the very thing that needs defence.


  1. Paul,

    This is slightly off subject, but I think it is telling. Light can behave like a wave or a particle - depending on what questions you ask. The problem is the human mind cannot entertain both possibilities together with ease. We like things to be classifiable and where a duality exists we struggle. Alcohol clearly has harms and benefits - so rarely is the debate open to both possibilities. In this respect you have written something balanced in stead of the usual one eyed propaganda you usually read on the subject.

  2. Thanks Ed. Balance was what I was wanting.