Issue 10 / 21 March 2011

WHEN I lived in Italy, public drunkenness was so rare it would bring people out on the street, in the way we might gather to gawk at a passing circus elephant.

“Ubriaco (drunk)!” people would cry, laughing as they pointed out the curious sight to their children.

You’d be kept pretty busy if you tried to do the same thing on the streets of an Australian town or city on a Saturday night.

It’s not that the Italians don’t like a drink. In fact, the latest data from the World Health Organization show Italians’ average per capita consumption of 10.7 L of pure alcohol each year is slightly higher than our 10 L.

But, unlike many Australians, Italians tend to drink moderate amounts all the time rather than engaging in a damaging cycle of binge and recovery.

As a result, they and some of their neighbours in southern and western Europe are granted “least risky” status when it comes to the WHO’s patterns of drinking assessment.

Actually, Australia does surprisingly well on this measure, scoring 2 on a scale of 1–5, where 1 means least and 5 means most risky drinking patterns.

In comparison with some of the global heavy hitters, we’re just not in the competition — Russia, for example, gets a terrifying 5.

But that certainly doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent.

A study to be published by Youth Studies Australia of just over 600 students at the University of Canberra has revealed that almost half drank at harmful or hazardous levels, and two-thirds had experienced harm from their own alcohol use.

On average, the biggest drinking session for these students over the previous 4 weeks was 11 standard drinks for the men and seven for the women.

While the most common harm in both sexes was vomiting, around a quarter of male drinkers had experienced more serious consequences such as engaging in dangerous behaviours “just for fun” or driving a car while drunk.

It’s not just the boys either. Another study published online last week indicated that Australian women are closer to achieving gender parity when it comes to alcohol-related harms than our sisters in other countries, perhaps because our drinking patterns more closely approximate those of men.

Surveys of drinkers in 26 countries revealed Australia was the only developed nation where men did not experience significantly more negative social consequences than women — including alcohol-related violence, and an impact on finances, employment and personal relationships — as a result of their drinking.

We may not be up there with the Russians, but could we become more like the Italians?

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer, and author of Making girls and boys: inside the science of sex, published by UNSW Press.

Posted 21 March 2011

4 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: A toast to the Italians

  1. Dr Joe says:

    Thanks Jane. A sensible story about alcohol instead of the hectoring and doom we get from the public health brigade.

  2. Dr RAy Seidler says:

    Having just returned from a beach holiday in Thailand, I was struck by the fact that the only public drunkenness I observed was by Australians in the foyer of my hotel. A sudden downpour had caused them all to become drenched and the combination of thongs, overindulgence with alcohol and singlets turned the lobby into a disaster zone.
    Now, interestingly, citizens of heavy drinking nations like Russia, Finland and Sweden,were living in the area. At no stage did I see nationals from any other country screaming, exposing themselves and yelling to the surrounding shocked locals.

  3. Dr.ARC says:

    The behaviour of young Australians on holiday overseas leaves a lot to be desired.
    I wonder if group binge drinking is a cultural thing in Australia and amongst Australians everywhere.
    Perhaps we need to start a campaign of teaching our school children from a young age, the dangers of binge drinking and the undesirable side effects. The costs of treating alcoholics, like smokers, is beginning to outweigh the revenue from customs and excise.

  4. Sue Ieraci says:

    I think there is more to this than just attitudes to alcohol – it’s about societal mores in general. Italy, like many European countries, still has a strong family-orientated culture, and the sense that a person’s behaviour reflects on the family. Teens there are generally not embarrassed to be seen at social events with their parents and siblings. And there is less emphasis on “independence” as a virtue. All of these features have good and less good aspects, but likely have an influence on the general behaviour of teenagers – not just drinking behaviour.

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