Risky drinking among men: alcohol's role in social interaction
“They are not a nation of snobs like the English or of extravagant boasters like the Americans or of reckless profligates like the French, they are simply a nation of drunkards.” – Marcus Clarke, 1869
In the classic 1971 Australian film Wake in Fright, lead character John Grant, an Englishman, refuses the offer of a beer from a man who’s just driven him a dry and dusty distance from his outback hell.
“Yer mad, ya bastard,” the man says, utterly bemused by Grant’s refusal, even offended.
In an earlier scene, Grant hunts kangaroos at night with a group of young local men he’s only just met. It’s a dangerous adventure saturated with beer. And guns. Many of the movie’s scenes include beer as a vital social connector. Alcohol-infused mateship.
A contemporary exploration of Australian men’s drinking culture suggests little has changed in 2018-19.
Alcohol consumption remains critical to social connection between young men, and the point at which they think their drinking could be categorised as “risky” is radically out of touch with established guidelines.
Risky drinking is defined by the National Health and Medical Research Council as the consumption of more than two standard drinks per day (for lifetime risk of disease) and more than four standard drinks on a single occasion (for risk of injury).
But many of those who took part in the study "suggested that risk for them started at 10, 15, 20 or 30 standard drinks”.
“A minority of men from all subgroups suggested that there was no level of alcohol consumption that ought to be considered risky,” the study stated.
Fifty-nine per cent said they downed more than five drinks in one session weekly, and 38 per cent said they slaked their thirst with more than 11 drinks in one session monthly.
The study was led by Dr Steven Roberts from Monash University’s School of Social Sciences, and commissioned by VicHealth. It involved 101 men with a median age of 28 from a cross-section of subcultures, including sports clubs, and hospitality and corporate workers in Melbourne and regional Victoria.
“We found that risky drinking was highly prevalent across the sample and in all subcultural groups,” Dr Roberts said.
But it was among metropolitan hospitality workers that risky drinking appeared to be an occupational hazard, with the subgroup reporting the highest proportion of risky drinkers among all participants.
“This,” Dr Roberts said, “was due to a combination of occupational practices, including access to free drinks, and a perceived necessity for post-work wind-down.”
“We found that risky drinking was highly prevalent across the sample and in all subcultural groups.”
Much like the movie Wake in Fright, the study also confirmed the importance of drinking as it related to male social interactions.
“They viewed drinking as the default social activity for men, embedded firmly into Australian culture,” Dr Roberts says. “Alcohol was described by them as an ice-breaker and as a means of lowering inhibitions to help them ‘open up’.”
Victoria’s Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos, said it was important that men felt they had other options to socialise beyond drinking.
“It’s concerning that some Victorian men feel like the only way they can connect with their friends or express their masculinity is through drinking,” she said.
While drinking was seen as a key way to connect among young men, decisions about how much they drank was perceived to be deeply personal, with men unlikely to intervene in a friend’s risky drinking practices.
“Participants adhered to the idea that ultimately the individual is responsible for monitoring and moderating their drinking, and for understanding their limits in regards to alcohol,” Dr Roberts said.
“In principle, and of concern, participants reported that they would not intervene in a male friend’s drinking until the friend was incapable of taking care of themselves.”
Except when it came to drink-driving.
“Drink-driving was the one circumstance in which they felt confident, and largely unhindered, in their ability to intervene in a friend’s drinking behaviours,” Dr Roberts said.
“Most participants were confident that, if necessary, they would confiscate a friend’s car keys.”
Public health implications
Dr Roberts said the study had important implications for public health education and messaging.
“Given our findings about the way in which men appear to subscribe to discourses of autonomy and individual choice as a way of promoting their masculinity, a focus on risk to others in public health campaigns may be more fruitful than an exclusive focus on individual consumption levels,” he said.
The findings have prompted VicHealth to announce $500,000 in new funding to try and change the way groups of men think about alcohol.
VicHealth executive manager of programs Kirsten Corben said the research showed that stereotypes needed to be challenged and public health initiatives needed to change tactics when it came to supporting men to drink less.
“This funding is about redefining masculine drinking and creating options for men where they can connect with their mates and express themselves without having to drink 20 beers,” she said.