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Alcohol & Australia

Did you know that the most famous and heavily consumed drink in Australia is wine? In the financial year 2017, Australians consumed around 28.36 litres of wine... per person. And Australians don't just drink wine - in 2018, Australians drank 9.39 litres of pure alcohol per person, and this was considered a big win as it's a considerable decline from the 9.66 litres in 2016.

Where does this cultural norm of consuming litres of alcohol come from and how do people normalise and internalise it?

A History of Rum

Heavy drinking in Australia has been a cultural norm since colonisation. For a long period of time, convicts in Australia were partially paid with rum. The distribution of rum amongst the New South Wales Corps led to the only successful armed takeover of an Australian government, which later became known as the Rum Rebellion of 1808.

Spirits were the most widely consumed alcoholic beverages in Australia in the 1830s, with early conservative estimates showing that 3.6 litres of pure alcohol were consumed by each person in New South Wales annually.

Temperance and Prohibition

However, in the 1830s, the Temperance Movement gained a following in the colony. Its influence peaked during World War I and the Great Depression, thus alcohol sales were prohibited in the Australian Capital Territory between 1910 and 1928. Four referendums regarding the prohibition of alcohol were conducted in Western Australia, including one in each of the years 1911, 1921, 1925 and 1950. In 1837, laws were passed to prevent Aboriginal access to alcohol as binge drinking became problematic.

An attempt to prohibit alcohol on the Victorian Goldfields was made in 1852. This was the main factor leading to the growth in sly-grog shops (a sly-grog shop is an Australian term for an unlicensed hotel, liquor-store or vendor).

In a failed attempt to reduce the effects of alcohol on society, all liquor establishments were forced to close by 6 pm from the 1910s to the 1960s. Prohibition was adopted in the Australian Capital Territory between 1910 and 1928, and four referendums regarding the prohibition of alcohol were conducted in Western Australia between 1911 and 1950.

Rather than reduce alcohol consumption, the measures led to excessive drinking in the hour before closing time which became known as the six o'clock swill. In the decade after World War II, there was a steep rise in the consumption of beer in Australia. Since the 1960s the popularity of beer has declined while wine consumption increased.

The consumption of alcohol increased from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s when it began to decline until it reached a consumption level commensurate with 1961 in 2003. Consumption peaked in 1974 and 1975 when an average of 13.09 litres of pure alcohol was consumed per person.

Alcohol equality

In March 1965, Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner secured themselves to the foot rail of Brisbane's Regatta Hotel with a dog chain to protest laws excluding them, as women, from drinking with men at public bars. In 1965, a South Australian winemaker Thomas Angove invented the box wine or wine cask. The following four decades saw an increase in per capita wine consumption and a decrease in beer drinking. However, the market value of beer sales increased as the sales of up-market or boutique beers gained in popularity.

Where are we today?

In 2005, Queensland introduced a lockout trial in order to reduce alcohol-related violence at three entertainment precincts, which saw patrons barred from re-entering a licensed venue after 3 am. Victoria introduced a similar initiative known as the 2 am Lockout in 2008. The 2010 Melbourne live music rally was a public rally to protest the claimed effects of liquor licensing laws on live music in the city.

Currently, you’re breaking the law if you drive and your blood alcohol concentration is equal to or more than 0.05. When driving, if you’re on a learner's or provisional licence, your BAC must be zero. You must be 18 or older to buy alcohol or to drink alcohol in a licensed venue. It’s illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under 18 or to someone who is already drunk. All packaged alcohol must show how many standard drinks it contains. And there are also some areas where you can’t drink alcohol.

The Culture

Drinking is arguably one of the biggest parts of Australian culture. In Australia, it’s strongly connected to social situations; you’ll struggle to find a party or gathering that doesn’t have alcohol in one form or another. And as aforementioned, wine is the drink of choice for this nation. 42.8% of Australians consumers will consume wine at least once, as opposed to beer (38.2%) and spirits (26.3%).

In 2017-18, 78.8% of Australians aged 18 years and over had consumed alcohol in the past year. A further 8.5% had consumed alcohol 12 or more months ago, and 11.6% had never consumed alcohol. More men had consumed alcohol in the past year (84.5%) than women (73.3%).

It’s common to go out for drinks to relax after work, or to celebrate over a toast with friends and family. The legal drinking age in Australia is 18, so if you’re visiting from a country where the legal age is older, you might have your first drink here.

In Australian culture, it can be a bit hard to say no to friends or family who is offering you a drink. Saying no might earn you a few strange looks, but there are other ways to turn down drinks without offending anyone.


What can we learn from this?

Hard and firm legislation adopted between 1910 and 1928 without viable recreation alternatives led to a spike in alcohol consumption, rather than curbing it. It is vital to engage the public with cultural alternatives alongside increasing legislation otherwise underground markets can lead to adverse effects.

Examining the role alcohol has to play in evoking patriotism, for example with the Rum Rebellion, can give us key insight into how Australians and many other people feel when sharing a beer with a friend. Alcohol technology, like box wines, can wildly drive consumption if not regulated and cause competing alcohol arenas to rebrand.

Now alcohol has rooted itself in arenas of fun, play and celebration in Australian culture as well as casual everyday life, but engaging people in activities other than drinking is not impossible. Sydney has a growing number of sober dance parties and Untoxicated, a social group for those who don't want to drink, has a loyal following. It's still the norm to meet up at a bar for a drink, however this could change with the introduction of viable alternatives.


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