Sliding into a taxi in Newcastle one scorching day last week, I asked the driver if he’d been busy.
“Not today”, he answered. “Wednesday night and Thursday I will be busy.”
A little surprised, I asked him if this was due to special events planned for the upcoming public holiday but he laughed, making eye contact in the rear vision mirror.
“Nah, it’s Australia Day. They all get drunk.”
The driver, who later told me he had only lived in Australia for a few years, had identified an unofficial theme of the day: booze.
You might kid yourself that our favourite public holiday pastime is all about relaxing or the larrikin spirit but, as Hannah Pierce and Julia Stafford, from the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth at Curtin University write in the post below, we are actually playing into the hands, and lining the pockets, of the powerful marketing machine of the alcohol companies — and doing ourselves harm in the process.
In a post at Croakey last week, Jennifer Doggett explored the growing support for changing the date of Australia Day to something that all Australians can celebrate. Marches around the country on January 26 reinforced the depth of feeling on this issue.
The national conversation about the best way to unify and celebrate this country will continue. While we’re at it, we should also seriously consider if we want Big Alcohol organising the party.
Hannah Pierce and Julia Stafford write:
Alcohol companies love to promote alcohol in connection with festivities, and Australia Day is no exception.
The lead up to our national day saw Carlton Dry on Facebook announcing “Mates and snags, tunes and cans – must be Australia Day!” while Woodstock encouraged you to “Celebrate togetherness the Woodstock way”. Giveaways promoted included Carlton Dry and XXXX Gold branded coolers, a “True Blue” Coopers Swag, and a chance to win a “fleet of beer” deliveries direct to your Australia Day BBQ thanks to James Squire. The Cellarbrations website even had a blog piece on the “typical play-by-play ’Straya Day” that encouraged you to drink throughout the day.
Liquor retailers focused on low prices and bulk purchases. The Coles supermarket catalogue promoted cheap specials for “Aussie Day BBQS” while Woolworths encouraged us to “Stock up for the Australia Day weekend”.
It reached a fever pitch on January 26. On social media Smirnoff told us we’re “better together” and Jack Daniel’s raised a glass to Australia. Many alcohol brands wished us a “happy Australia Day” with pictures of drinks.
Research has found mateship and friendship are common themes in alcohol advertising, and this shines through in Australia Day promotions. The holiday is often spent with friends and family, and brands want us to see alcohol as an essential part of our celebrations. As Southern Comfort says, there’s no “better way to celebrate than with a few cold cans, tunes and some close mates”. Promoting drinking as the ‘Australian’ thing to do on Australia Day ties alcohol in with our national identity and normalises the notion that you can’t celebrate without alcohol.
There are several problems with the extensive promotion of alcohol in connection with Australia Day. Firstly, a recent study from the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine found one in seven presentations in Australian emergency departments (EDs) on Australia Day 2016 was due to alcohol, similar to weekend presentation rates. Seven hospitals reported that alcohol-related presentations represented more than 30% of their workload. The study found higher rates of alcohol-related presentations to EDs in Australia compared with New Zealand, the control site. The authors noted that their results support government regulations to control alcohol availability, cost and promotion.
This study is consistent with research by Turning Point released in 2012 that examined ambulance, hospital and police data in Melbourne over 10 years and found Australia Day was the worst day of the year for assaults and drunkenness for people aged less than 25 years.
Should alcohol companies heavily promote drinking on Australia Day when our emergency departments and police are the ones left cleaning up the mess?
Secondly, for many Australians January 26 is not a day of celebration – it marks the day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were dispossessed of their land. Promoting the consumption of alcohol as a way to celebrate this day is both insensitive to the views of many Australians, and inappropriate given the high levels of alcohol-related harm experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We know there is community concern about Australia Day alcohol promotions. The Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB), developed by the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth and Cancer Council WA, accepts and reviews complaints from the Australian community about alcohol advertising.
Each year the AARB receives complaints about Australia Day promotions, such as a Smirnoff Facebook post encouraging followers to “Be sure to keep the esky well stocked this Australia Day, whatever it may look like! Un-Australian not to really” and a Liquor Stax ad inviting you to “Get into the spirit this Australia Day”.
One community member noted that “By promoting alcohol spirits with ‘the spirit of Australia Day’ it promotes a drinking culture, and conveys the message that consuming alcohol is necessary to celebrate Australia Day.”
Australia Day is just one example of alcohol companies hijacking a national holiday and encouraging us to celebrate with alcohol. The number of alcohol-related presentations to our EDs on Australia Day suggests that as a nation we’re enthusiastically taking this message on board.
Health organisations around Australia support stronger regulations on the content and placement of alcohol marketing as part of the comprehensive approach needed to reduce alcohol-related harm. This measure is supported by strong and compelling evidence that indicates that alcohol marketing has an impact on children and young people, and the alcohol industry self-regulatory codes do not protect them from exposure to alcohol promotions.
Alcohol companies may be reluctant to put the health and wellbeing of Australians before profits, so we need our governments to step up by introducing strong, independent regulation of alcohol marketing to protect our community.
Hannah Pierce is an information and Research Officer, and Julia Stafford is Executive Officer, at the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, Curtin University. The Alcohol Advertising Review Board is on twitter @