Drunken thuggery not alcohol’s fault

An article by Karl du Fresne in the Listener – Bar None – cites a recently published paper that lays the blame for violence on bad behaviour and not on alcohol.

A recently published paper looks at alcohol and its associated social problems through an anthropological lens and concludes we’ve got it all wrong. It’s not booze that’s to blame for violence and antisocial behaviour – it’s us.

This doesn’t surprise me. Most people manage to keep behaving themselves to a reasonable degree when they drink alcohol. It’s just that a minority become thugs when drinking booze, and too many others excuse them too much for their bad behaviour.

And it’s not just drunken thuggery that that is excused too much, it’s other anti-social and self harming behaviour that is accepted as ok and even funny that contributes to our ongoing binge culture.

“Understanding Behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand Night-Time Economies” is a paper by British anthropologist Anne Fox, who has studied drinking cultures for 20 years and worked as a consultant on substance misuse for the British Army.

A key finding is that despite a tightly regulated drinking environment, we accept a level of drunken behaviour that would not be tolerated in many other Western countries.

Scapegoating alcohol as the sole cause of violence, she argues, merely diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms” that allow New Zealand and Australian men to be violent and aggressive.

She cites other countries where a lot of alcohol is drunk but that don’t have similar levels of drunken violence:

  • Iceland has high rates of per capita alcohol consumption, along with a culture of preloading (drinking before going out) and all-night bar opening, “and yet violent crime [there] is almost non-existent”.
  • The Danes are big drinkers too yet remain “famously harmonious and peaceful”.
  • She points to Japan as an example of a culture where heavy drinking is widely tolerated, but overtly drunken or antisocial behaviour is not. Japanese drinkers seem quite capable of conforming to these social norms, according to Fox.
  • In Cuba men generally pride themselves on self-control when drinking, and risk being stigmatised if they behave badly.

And Fox details the example of Gilbralter…

…“a unique Anglo-Mediterranean hybrid” where she researched drinking and drug use among British soldiers. The drinking culture there is essentially Mediterranean and revolves around wine, food and good-natured sociability. Displays of inebriated extroversion, such as staggering about drunk or urinating in the streets, attract harsh penalties and social disapproval.

Fox says arriving soldiers are briefed on how to behave and are able to modify their usual drunken comportment to comply with Gibraltar’s social rules. Despite still drinking “vast” quantities of alcohol, they manage to remain self-controlled and well mannered.

An army wife from Glasgow told Fox she loved taking her children into Gibraltar pubs because it enabled them to see grown-ups drinking and enjoying themselves all afternoon and then walking home sober – something they never saw at home.

The lesson Fox took from Gibraltar was that “ultimately, to make any fundamental change in the culture of behaviour, we need to focus on the behaviour, not the drinking.”

New Zealand and Australian culture around drinking and violence are different.

Drunken behaviour is largely culturally determined, she says, and can be heavily influenced by situational cues. It can also be engaged or disengaged at will.

“As long as we continue to promulgate the myth that alcohol can radically transform a person’s behaviour, we can expect to see undesirable conduct in and around drinking venues. We must take the genie out of the bottle and return the responsibility for conduct to the individual.”

The lesson Fox took from Gibraltar was that “ultimately, to make any fundamental change in the culture of behaviour, we need to focus on the behaviour, not the drinking.”

Experiments show that even highly intoxicated people can control their behaviour and exercise good judgment, she says. She also points out that whereas we tend to excuse people who get aggressive or obnoxious when drinking, we don’t apply the same tolerance to other types of behaviour.

“Most people would not excuse theft because the person was drunk. Neither is it acceptable to insult or injure vulnerable members of society such as the elderly, handicapped or children. But taking off one’s clothes, urinating – but not defecating – shouting, fighting, singing, flirting and even going home with the ‘wrong’ person are all blamed on the drink.”

Most people control their behaviour most of the time when drinking.

“All the scientific literature suggests that as long as they have an incentive to control their behaviour, 98% of people can remain perfectly controlled even though heavily inebriated.”

But some use alcohol as an excuse to be thugs. And our culture has allowed that.

Fox doesn’t just blame antisocial behaviour on the self-fulfilling belief that drinking causes us to lose self-control. Where violence is concerned, Fox says, there are other, uglier forces at work.

We like to think of ourselves as an easy-going society, but as Fox puts it, “the flip side of the New Zealand national character reveals darker features of hyper-masculinity with its attendant norms of male entitlement, pride, honour, competition, fighting, racism and misogyny”.

Some of those things don’t need alcohol as an excuse.

Aggressive masculinity, she says, is evident everywhere, from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media. Violent sports, a culture of male domination and strong codes of male honour are all violence-reinforcing factors in society, as is conspicuous income inequality.

“Drinking culture doesn’t exist on its own. As one anthropologist has put it, drinking is a window on culture. So you see other aspects of culture, such as the macho culture in New Zealand, being expressed through drinking.”

And even victims of violence make excuses for drunken violence.

Fox tells of British army wives who blamed alcohol when their husbands assaulted them. “It’s not him, it’s the alcohol,” they would tell her. “He only does it when he’s drunk.” At which point the conversation would typically proceed along the following lines:

Fox: “Does he only drink when he’s with you?”

Army wife: “No, he drinks with his mates.”

Fox: “So does he beat his mates up when he’s drunk?” Awkward silence.

Alcohol does not cause the violent behaviour.

“There is no evidence that for most normal, healthy individuals, the presence of alcohol in the brain results in, encourages or unleashes violence. Alcohol can, in certain cultures and situations, be a facilitator of aggression if aggression is there to begin with, both in the individual and in the cultural environment. But it does not produce it where it doesn’t already exist.”

A major problem is that angry men (and women) drink.

She quotes a policewoman with long experience of weekend patrols in a large Australian city as saying: “I’ve never met a violent drunk who was not also violent when sober.”

Alcohol doesn’t increase anger, Fox argues. If anything, the reverse is truer: angry men drink.

If alcohol is merely used as an excuse for violent behaviour, government efforts would be better concentrated on social education, health promotion and sanctions on violent individuals.

New Zealand has successfully changed social behaviour on drink driving through education and sanctions. So perhaps we should do something similar with drunk thuggery.

She calls New Zealanders out on careless and inaccurate use of language that absolves people of responsibility for the consequences of their drinking. The commonly heard phrase “alcohol-fuelled violence”, for instance, suggests it’s all the alcohol’s fault, when Fox says the responsibility should be placed squarely on the perpetrator of the violence.

“If 100,000 people go out drinking and one person behaves badly or violently, we say it’s alcohol-fuelled. But what about the other 99,999? As long as you talk about alcohol-fuelled violence, you’re helping to perpetuate the belief that alcohol causes violence.”

I’ve almost fallen into that habit writing this post, thinking of using terms like ‘alcohol fueled’ and ‘under the influence’.

She also objects to the unhelpfully loose use of the phrase “binge drinking”, pointing out that a binge used to be defined as a period of drunkenness lasting two days or more. It was associated with neglect of self, job, children and other responsibilities. Now, however, the term is used to describe any alcohol consumption above the safe recommended guidelines. Fox says this blurs the boundaries between high-risk consumption and low to moderately risky drinking.

“In some surveys, you need only to have consumed more than four drinks in one sitting once in the past 12 months to be classified as a risky drinker. “There’s absolutely no argument that the medical and health implications of drinking too much alcohol need to be well publicised and well understood by the general public, which currently isn’t the case. But to brand as pathological the amount most normal people drink at a dinner party or wedding or on a night out turns the entire population into risky drinkers. So then how do you identify those who really are risky drinkers?”

I think this is an important point. Most of us can over-indulge occasionally without without causing any harm to anyone else and doing little or no harm to ourselves – no more so than occasional over-indulging of eating..

When it comes to violence it shouldn’t be difficult to identify risky drinkers, especially when they become drunken thugs.

It’s not alcohol’s fault some people become dangerous while drinking. But it’s our society’s fault that they have been allowed to use alcohol as an excuse.

Note: Fox’s study was commissioned by Sydney-based liquor conglomerate Lion.

Fox expects to be dismissed by some as a propagandist for the liquor industry, but insists that her contract with Lion stipulated no interference in her research, analysis or writing. “In fact, it was quite brave of Lion because it didn’t know what I was going to say or what the results would be.

“I am not a mouthpiece for the alcohol industry but I do believe that every stakeholder in the drinking culture has a right to be heard.”

“Ten biggest threats to nature in the city”

An Auckland University study, using experts from New Zealand, Australia and the UK, and has identified “the ten biggest future threats to nature in the city” .

Some of these so-called threats may be a surprise.

Top 10 threats to nature in the city

A new study, led by researchers in the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, brought together experts from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand to identify current trends and new technologies that pose the biggest threat to urban ecosystems.

The list includes advances in technology aimed at lessening human impact on the environment.

“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater – some of these new technologies bring a range of environmental benefits,” lead author Dr Margaret Stanley says.

“But clever solutions are going to be needed to mitigate threats to urban biodiversity if we are to maintain our connection with nature as we become increasingly urbanised.”

There is growing evidence that the natural world is a benefit to human health and wellbeing, particularly if more and more of us are going to be living in cities in the future, the study authors say.

Top 10 Potential threats

  1. Health demands on greenspace: As more people are encouraged to use green urban spaces for exercise, these spaces can become highly maintained for people rather than wildlife; with more tracks, artificial lighting and fewer plants.
  2. Digital replacement of nature: There is a risk that nature in cities could be replaced with digital equivalents of nature, such as images and sound recordings. This gives people some of the benefits of nature, but without the maintenance and messy side of nature, however it could lead to city dwellers undervaluing nature in their immediate environment.
  3. Scattered cremains (material resulting from cremation): There has been a growing trend for cremation as space for burial of human remains is at a premium. However, in some cities land for interring cremains has become very expensive and scattering cremains has become more culturally acceptable. Because of high levels of phosphate and calcium in cremains, there is a risk of polluting urban ecosystems and waterways.
  4. Spread of disease by urban cats: Globally, there are now more than 600 million pet cats, and the increase in pet cat ownership is resulting in the disease toxoplasma spilling over into wildlife populations, in urban areas as well as to species in more remote locations, such as the endangered Hector’s dolphin.
  5. Switch to LED lights: Cities across the globe are switching their lighting technology to LED lights. However, the whiter spectrum of LED lights overlaps with the visual systems of wildlife and can disrupt their physiology and behaviour.
  6. Solar cities: Many cities are implementing city-wide solar panel installation programmes. However, solar panels can disrupt the behaviour and reproduction of animals that are attracted to the polarised light they produce.
  7. Nanotechnology: Nanoparticles (e.g. graphene) are now an increasing but invisible part of cities, found in everything from smartphones to clothing. However, there has been almost no research on the effects of these particles on animals, plants and entire ecosystems.
  8. Self-healing concrete: This is a new concrete product infused with specialised bacteria is about to be commercialised. If use of this product becomes widespread, it could spell the end for the often unique biodiversity that currently manages to thrive in cracked concrete all around cities.
  9. Energy efficient homes: Many countries are implementing large-scale retrofitting of buildings to make them more energy efficient. However, this effectively seals the building off from the outside, resulting in loss of breeding sites for wildlife such as bats and nesting birds.
  10. Drones: The recent popularity of using drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) in cities is likely to result in issues for wildlife, such as nesting birds, which are particularly sensitive to stress and repeated aerial disturbance.

The study is published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.


Study proves success of Psychotic Substances Bill

A study shows that  the introduction of the Pstchotic Substances Bill plus further tightening of legal availability of synthetic highs has “virtually stopped the flow of users needing mental health care.”

So have synthetic users stopped using drugs? Or have they switched to other drugs that either don’t cause the same need for mental health treatment?

Or did the study not look at treatment levels required for the effects of other drugs?

Radio NZ reports in Synthetic drug ban success – study

Otago University chair of psychiatry Paul Glue, who is also a consultant psychiatrist at the Southern DHB, led a study into the impact of the law change, published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Professor Glue said, before the law change, emergency departments saw young people with psychosis, severe mood problems, aggression, depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies as a result of taking legal highs.

“In early 2013, we had a large number of young people turning up who needed admission to hospital related to smoking synthetic cannabis… and so it was obviously a real concern in terms of patients’ health and safety, and really as a public health problem as well.”

“In the middle of 2013, the Psychoactive Substances BIll came along, and that approximately halved the number of products that were available for sale, but more importantly it reduced the number of places where synthetic cannabis could be sold from,” he said.

“We saw a 50 percent reduction in attendances at ED [emergency department] or EPS [emergency psychiatric service], but the presentation was exactly the same, exactly the same kind of demographic, these were primarily young men who had histories of mental illness.”

So the Bill seems to have had an immediate significant impact.

Last year, following high profile campaigns and media coverage about the impact of synthetic highs on individuals and communities, the law was further tightened, removing all products from the shelves.

Under the law, a product has to pass a testing regime and be sold with a licence, and no companies have so far applied for or received a licence.

Professor Glue said, after this change, the number of people needing care after taking legal highs almost disappeared altogether.

“People had gone out and bought lots of products, and then smoked it, and once it was gone, the harm stopped.”

This sounds like the Bill has been a major success. The media hasn’t been reporting problems or concerns.

Are people with mental health issues not taking drugs any more or have they switched to drugs that cause less problems.