Last drinks at the Paradise Motel


Image: Michael Jarmoluk,

As I gave up drinking alcohol some 36 years ago, it was probably not surprising I forgot the essential ingredient for a house-warming party.

“Um,” said She Who Trusted Me with the Catering, “What about the ice – for those who are bringing something to drink?”

Off I went on a mercy dash to buy a bag of ice. The first guest had arrived before I returned and showed me the best way to prepare ice for an esky (drop it on the concrete driveway).

There was quite a bit of wine left over at the end, which suggested our guests were moderate drinkers (or intended that wine be left for mine hosts). In all, it was an enjoyable christening of the Paradise Motel (named after one of my more fanciful songs).

My mind turned to this subject with a timely new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare about the effect of drugs and alcohol on the health of the general public.

This intersected nicely with an observation made by an emergency medicine veteran. His view was that if everyone gave up drinking alcohol and taking illicit drugs, Emergency Department staff would then have ample time to care for people who are genuinely sick.

The National Hospital Morbidity Database showed that in 2017-2018, there were 136,000 same day or overnight hospital admissions for a drug-related principal diagnosis. On its own, alcohol accounted for 53% of these admissions. No prizes for speculating about the other 47%.

Ah, you are thinking, the wowser’s view: “all health problems caused by drugs and alcohol are self-inflicted.”

Perhaps the ER veteran’s views would also include people whose health has deteriorated over time as a result of smoking tobacco.

The AIHW report confirms a noticeable decline in the use of tobacco in the 14 and over age group (from 24.3% in 1991 to 12.2% in 2016). Despite this impressive statistic, smoking is still the leading cause of cancer in Australia (22% of the cancer burden).

Alcohol abuse, however, is a far more worrying problem. The World Health Organisation found that 3 million deaths result every year from harmful use of alcohol (5.3 % of all deaths). The harmful use of alcohol is a factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.

It is generally accepted that (excessive) alcohol consumption and its aftermath contributes to more than 6000 deaths in Australia every year.

You’d never know it, but sometimes in the privacy of our own lounge room, we watch the reality TV show, RBT (the ex-probation officer and the (sober) ex-journalist relishing the opportunity to make snide comments). We did sympathise to a degree with the young chap who freely admitted to using cannabis every day (‘but I don’t drink alcohol at all’). Nevertheless the law finds that he is still driving under the influence and he thereby paid a price.

A month or so ago I had to drive to Toowoomba for the day and was stopped by a roadside breath test crew. Did I say this was at 9.10am on a weekday? She Who Still Enjoys a Drink or Two observed that such roadside blitzes often catch people who are still over the blood alcohol level limit after a night of partying.

The AIHW report found that while the majority of Australians drink alcohol, the overall daily intake is on a downward trend. The proportion of people drinking in excess of lifetime risk guidelines continues to decline.

The apparent consumption of alcohol in 2017-2018 was equivalent to an average of 2.72 standard drinks per day per consumer of alcohol aged 15 and over.

That is a fair way below the binge drinking and ‘pre-loading’ that goes on among the must-get-drunk-to-socialise cohort.

Almost 40% of Australians aged 18 and over exceeded the single occasion risk guidelines by consuming more than four standard drinks in one sitting. About 1 in 6 (17.4%) Australians aged 14 and over put themselves or others at risk of harm while under the influence of alcohol in the last 12 months.

I guess these are the people the RBT teams are out to catch.

Alcohol consumption inevitably increases on festive occasions like Christmas, New Year and public holidays like Australia Day. Special birthday and anniversaries are also vulnerable times for those who find it difficult to stop after two or three.

So how much is too much? The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines binge drinking as more than 7 drinks a night for men, and more than 5 for women. The NHMRC Australian Alcohol Guidelines defines excessive drinking as more than 4 standard drinks per night.

So how did we all go after those festive season parties? Many start at home and stay there. Others start with a few at-home drinks (sometimes known as pre-loading), before partygoers wisely catch taxis to the next venue, where the drinking continues.

Drink-driving laws have done much to help drinkers self-regulate. Many of the people stopped by officers on RBT were consciously monitoring their drinking.

But not everyone is as keen to avoid losing their drivers’ licence. In my court reporting days for a daily newspaper, I recall cases where the defendant was found to have a blood alcohol level of (extreme example) 0.34 – quite a long way beyond the Australian limit of 0.05). Quite often people with this level of blood alcohol have been found asleep at the wheel of a stationary vehicle (and a jolly good thing too).

Not that it should fall to me to make such withering observations, but I sometimes wonder how the evening ended for three young women, so much under 18 and under the influence after the footy (about 10pm) that they took off their high heeled shoes and wobbled down Milton Road.

Are we going clubbing?” I heard one of them ask a less-than sober friend. “Do you reckon we should we catch a cab to Valley or walk?”

Given that a round of four beers at the footie will set you back $40 or so, this type of drinker is unlikely to belong to the ‘average’ household that drinks $32 worth of alcohol per week. Did you notice that the NIHW report implicates adolescents as young as 14? In a country where the legal drinking age is 18, this implies that older friends (or family) are buying alcohol for the under-agers.

The AIHW report found that 9.1% of adolescent males and 6.8% of females aged 12-17 exceed the adult guidelines for single occasion risk.

Young people are arguably more likely to be influenced by alcohol advertising at major sports events, prompting targeted opposition from alcohol education lobbyists.

You might have heard tennis ace Nick Kyrgios say to John McEnroe after Tuesday’s night’s Australian Open win – ‘he’s had too many beers’ – a response to a spectator who yelled out something incomprehensible.

The National Alliance for Action on Alcohol is taking on the Australian Open, urging organisers to consider the role of advertising in youth drinking. An e-petition to this effect has so far gathered 151 signatures.

Another critic observed: “…exposure to alcohol advertising places children at greater risk of drinking earlier and at more dangerous levels than they otherwise would.”

This is a long way from my youth in 1960s rugby-mad New Zealand, where drinking beer to excess was considered to be a badge of manhood. It’s not, but I guess the statistics in 2020 show that more of us realise that now.

More reading: alcohol and mental health

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