30 May 2011

The many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness

Efforts to address drunkenness and intoxication get lost in translation

Drunkenness and intoxication may be recurring water cooler topics but while the terms are widely used and understood among particular groups, when the groups talk to each other they are talking at cross purposes and as a result measures to address the problems could be acting against each other, Deakin researchers say.

Listen to Chris Hickey, ABC Local Radio (Hobart)

In a new book, Smashed! The many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness, Deakin researchers Associate Professor Chris Hickey, Associate Professor Peter Kelly, Associate Professor  Lyn Harrison and Dr Jenny Advocat from Monash University show that while there are a range of concerns about the issues, there is no uniform agreement, even internationally, on what the terms mean. There is also no agreement on how to measure or define when someone is intoxicated or drunk.

Associate Professor Kelly said the book had emerged from two research projects conducted for DrinkWise Australia and the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing.

“One of the projects looked at the cultural drivers of young people’s drinking, and the other examined the ways that professionals, lay people and the media understood intoxication and drunkenness,” he said.

“Drawing on research and media commentary from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States we found that the different groups define and describe intoxication and drunkenness in ways that are related to particular purposes, outcomes and ends.

“Intoxication and drunkenness mean different things to different people, different organisations and different groups of commentators, politicians, policy professionals and different expert scientific communities,” Associate Professor Kelly explained. 

“So, when they are discussed,” said Associate Professor Kelly “intoxication and drunkenness can be framed as a health issue, a legal issue, a youth issue, an Aboriginal issue, an inner-city issue related to clubs or venues, a licensing issue, an issue for sporting clubs, an issue for rural communities, a welfare issue or an issue for privileged, middle aged business people.

“And, in all of these, we would see different things being discussed.’’

Associate Professor Harrison said these debates and multiple meanings, which many might dismiss as just being about vague academic concerns with definitions, have very concrete consequences.

“For example, should the fact that someone was intoxicated be a defence if they are accused of violent or sexual assault, when being drunk while driving is a criminal offence in itself?,” she said.

“Should licensees or bar managers or staff be responsible for the consequences of serving alcohol to someone who is obviously drunk, who may then get run over by a car as they leave the premises, or drive a car and kill or injure someone?

“In these cases at what point is the person drunk? How do you measure or define that? Blood alcohol content? Number of drinks in an hour? A ‘sobriety test’ which tests for being able to walk a straight line or if a person’s speech is slurred?”

Associate Professor Harrison  said public health professionals might be concerned with the short and longer term consequences of young people becoming intoxicated or drunk, and want to define that concern by measuring units of alcohol consumed at any one time.

“Yet in many contexts young people see being drunk as a rite-of-passage, or as helping with their confidence, or as being important in enabling them to belong to a people group of friends and with doing things together as a group,” he said.

“And being drunk for these young people may be defined by whether or not they ‘threw up’, or fell down, or got in a fight, or had a great time.”

Associate Professor Hickey said this range of different interpretations becomes even more confused when politicians and media get involved.

“The many meanings that apply to the terms gets lost in the ensuing political and media debate because the complexity of the issues is often reduced to a simple sound bite or comment,” he said.

“What Smashed! does is provide a valuable resource for all those who want to think seriously about the complex cultural, bio-medical and legal issues that should inform political and media debates about intoxication and drunkenness, but which often disappear as the print deadline approaches or as the evening news begins.”

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