by: Lisa Burnett
The role of alcohol in Australian culture is well known, but unfortunately, it appears that the size of the standard drink used in alcohol guidelines is not such common knowledge. Such widespread ignorance about what it means to drink responsibly has been causing serious problems around the world, but attempts are being made to counter this problem by educating people about alcohol. Services like AlcoCup’s information sessions have been helping to ensure that people have all the knowledge they require to follow the government’s guidelines on drinking, including the ability to recognise a standard drink.
The Problem of Ignorance
Ignorance is one of the most significant factors contributing to alcohol abuse in Australia, and in the rest of the world. Without an understanding of how much alcohol it is safe to drink, or of the risks of excessive drinking, it is too easy for people to reach the point at which their health has been harmed, without even realising that they have been drinking too much. Regularly drinking more than the two standard drinks a day guideline can leave people with chronic health conditions for which they did not even know they were at risk. In serious cases, people can find themselves experiencing the symptoms of conditions like alcohol induced liver disease, or even requiring treatment in an alcohol recovery program, before they realise that their drinking has become unhealthy. The problem is not that people are unwilling to try to drink responsibly, but rather that they often wrongly believe they are doing so, because they just don’t know what it actually means to drink at healthy levels.
Ignorance about what it means to drink responsibly is not the only form of ignorance that encourages unsafe attitudes to alcohol. Many people also hold false beliefs about how much other people are drinking, and how the people around them feel about alcohol. It is common for people to lie to themselves, and to others, about how much they drink, making it difficult for people to know how normal their alcohol consumption actually is. This type of social ignorance is particularly common among young people. Students often overestimate what responsible alcohol consumption is while on university campuses, leading them to believe that everyone is part of the heavy drinking culture, which impacts there ability to drink sensibly. The best remedy to these sorts of false beliefs was found to be education. Simply learning how others really felt about alcohol was enough to encourage young people to drink more responsibly.
Tackling Ignorance through Education
A better idea of the types of myths and misunderstandings surrounding alcohol was obtained from the surveys that AlcoCups conducted with almost 3000 people who attended information sessions in 2012 -13. Attendees were asked some basic questions about drug and alcohol awareness at the beginning of the session, and were then asked to answer the same questions at the end. The improvements in knowledge displayed in these responses was evidence of the success of the teaching methods, but the lack of understanding that participants displayed at the beginning of the sessions indicated that much more needs to be done to spread alcohol and drug awareness in Australia.
Although 72 percent of attendees were able to provide a correct definition of BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) before they began the session, demonstrating that some elements of the message about alcohol have pervaded the public consciousness, there were still some significant areas of confusion, particularly regarding just how much alcohol represented a standard drink. At the beginning of the session, 34 percent of participants falsely believed that the line on a wine glass was a marker for a standard sized drink, while just 13 percent of people were able to correctly state the number of standard drinks in a 700ml bottle of 12% wine. By the end of the session, more than 90 percent of the answers to each of these questions were correct. Although AlcoCups had managed to increase the understanding of these participants, their misconceptions at the beginning of the session reflect a serious problem in this country.
Improving Alcohol Awareness in Australia
The work done by AlcoCups demonstrates how easily education can improve people’s awareness of what it means to drink responsibly, but more needs to be done to tackle the problem of ignorance in Australian society. Ensuring that people understand how to drink responsibly, and use this knowledge to direct their behaviour, will have a significant impact on our health as a nation. The guidelines that are in place to help people drink responsibly will not be effective until people actually know what the standard drink on which they are based actually means.