Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society

Alcohol expert explores reasons for binge drinking and ways to minimise alcohol misuse

18 October 2006

“Among all the drugs used in the world, alcohol is probably the oldest and most deeply entrenched in human society. In many places it is a cornerstone of social and spiritual life, and can have iconic status as a powerful symbol of trust, status, bonding, peace, celebration, strength, etc.”, a special seminar in Dublin was told today.

Organised by MEAS, the alcohol social responsibility organisation, the seminar explored a range of cultural and social aspects of alcohol, focusing on how to understand better the impact of alcohol on people with a view to lessening its abuse.

The seminar was conducted by Ms. Anne Fox, an anthropologist and internationally respected expert on alcohol and drug abuse. Referring to the rise of group binge drinking, she concludes that it can be explained by the modern-day erosion of traditional communal rituals occurring alongside the increasing social isolation in which many humans live.

“This is not to say that group binge-drinking behaviour is acceptable or advisable”. Fox is quick to point to the recent research on the development of the teenage brain, for example, to illustrate the devastating effect that excessive use of alcohol can have.

She also cautions that “although relatively safe if used carefully, the power of both its (alcohol’s) social significance and, for some drinkers, its addictive potential can often override ‘common-sense’ drinking practice. Although the majority of drinkers worldwide enjoy alcohol with no lasting ill-effects, many people, young and old, suffer greatly from alcohol misuse”, she said.

The cultural aspects of alcohol have received relatively little attention from Irish researchers, yet understanding the cultural context is critically important when selecting measures to address alcohol related harm in Ireland.

Among the topics explored by Ms. Fox were:

· Is it inherently unnatural to want to alter one’s physical or mental state?

· Why is alcohol used in recreation, celebration and rite of passage (“becoming a grown-up”)?

· Is alcohol a social disinhibitor?

· Can placebos make people drunk?

· How does alcohol affect the brain?

· Should alcohol education seek to steer a course between danger and delight?

· Do shock-horror campaigns work?

· Do abstinence campaigns work?

· Can people’s behaviour towards alcohol be changed?

· What are the myths and reality of ‘binge’ drinking?

The Chief Executive of MEAS, Ms. Fionnuala Sheehan said that one of the aims of the seminar was “to bring an international perspective to bear on the issue of alcohol in Ireland – and on our understanding of the importance of the cultural and social context when selecting measures to address alcohol related harm.

“MEAS is also keen to encourage informed debate on measures and initiatives to reduce alcohol related harm, and we hope that this special media seminar will help to inform media commentators on the complexity of the issues surrounding the use of alcohol, and in particular alcohol abuse”.

Anne Fox is an experienced anthropologist and expert in drug and alcohol issues. She is the chief civilian researcher for the British Armed Forces (drug and alcohol policy, education and alcohol rehabilitation), an advisor to the UK Parliament and to various organisations on alcohol issues, and a programme evaluator for the UK Home Office’s Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC). Her father, Prof. Robin Fox, also an anthropologist, at one time studied kinship and land-tenure issues on Tory Island, Co. Donegal, and has been honoured by the University of Ulster.

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