You could say that excessive consumption of alcohol is, like wasting large sums on the pokies, a sign of a society whose people have too much money and no real purpose in life. And I keep hearing cries that we do something about it, like tax grog out of existence, or close all bars at ten o’clock.
I agree that we have a problem, but it isn’t a new one. When I was young the problem was called ‘the six o’clock swill’. Pubs closed at 6 pm, and men drank a great deal very quickly before staggering home. That caused a social movement to return to saner licensing laws (the six o’clock closing had come during the First World War, partly at the pushing of the temperance movement). And by the time I could legally enter a bar and consume alcohol ten o’clock closing had arrived.
At the beginning it seemed a great idea. It did change social behaviour for the better. And the young were not involved in ‘binge drinking’. The main reason was that we the young had no money. Yes, pay-day was an accepted moment to indulge to excess, but it came once a month. In my case any discretionary money was likely to go on LP records. Moreover, I had no liking for beer, and had yet to discover good wine. And when I did get drunk the results were so awful that I did not do it again.
By and large, our girlfriends were not drinkers, and pubs were not places for girls. We would take them to the ‘Lounge’, where we would need to buy sandwiches as well as the obligatory Gin Sling, or whatever the girl was having. That was expensive, and didn’t happen often. Then we finally got jobs, got married and had kids, and we still had no money for boozing. Very few of my generation at university became alcoholics. I doubt that many became addicted to the pokies, either.
I’m not suggesting that we were a superior breed. We just had little money. My father, who worked in the mines in Broken Hill, where he grew up, in order to put himself through university in the 1920s, had much the same story about his generation. Our society today is three times wealthier than it was fifty years ago, and probably five times wealthier than it was in the 1920s. The young have a decent share of that money, and use it to explore what their society has to offer, and that includes alcohol, and drugs (which were unknown in my day). They are also sexually active earlier, and with more partners, than was true fifty years ago. An additional cause here is the availability of the contraceptive pill. They marry later, too.
There is a lot of tut-tutting about all this, and I don’t like to see drunk teenagers any more than the next person. But I have no remedies to propose. Sex, drink, drugs, and tobacco all exist, and we human beings use them. We have to learn how to use them well, or not at all, and we do that best through experience. After we become legal adults, every one of us has to become responsible for shaping our own lives. There are unpleasant learning experiences along the way.
Banning things so that we can’t experience them, where the chief victim is ourselves, is a bad way forward. It has been tried, and it doesn’t work. People go on doing what they want to do, but now pay more for it, and suffer the possibility of criminal prosecution. Worse, it tends to corrupt the police force, which has a difficult and unpleasant job to do at the best of times. In my view we have gone down the wrong path by making drugs illegal, and sooner or later we will realise it.
If there is an addictive gene, and it looks to me as though that is a real possibility, then learning more about it, and how to control it, seems to me a much better path. All human beings, I think, are interested in new experiences. We need to ensure that these experiences occur in the safest and most supportive environments.
And that is a responsibility we have as parents, and as citizens.