Is it un-Australian to talk about our biggest drug problem?

View on friends having alcoholic drinks in the bar, close-up

Image: Yastremska/

Elspeth Muir’s brother, Alexander, died from drowning. It was 2009, and he had just turned 21. Alcohol was the major contributing factor.

Muir writes that his death ‘was not foreshadowed by his love of water except that it explains why he was near a river, alone, with a blood-alcohol content of almost 0.25. My brother died because he was drunk, and because the drink made him stupid.’

She writes of Alexander’s death and the drinking culture in Australia and within her family in her 2016 book, Wasted. The subtitle—A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane—tells part of the story. He died after jumping off Brisbane’s Storey Bridge. His body was found three days later.

The coroner called it an ‘accidental death’.

What does this have to do with retirement?

One of the best ways to prepare for retirement is to develop healthy habits now for then. It’s worth doing a self-check—if you drink alcohol—to work out whether you are drinking more than you should. Better yet, check out the site for information and guidelines.

Getting caught up in our drinking culture is easy to do because, as Muir says, ‘There is something unsettling and unsettled about the place of alcohol in Australian society.’ It’s how most Australians celebrate, commiserate, and simply pass time.

That’s why the question: Is it un-Australian to talk about our biggest drug problem?

Our biggest drug problem?

By any measure, alcohol fits the ‘biggest drug problem’ category. Let’s start with cost. Back in 2010, the Australian Institute of Criminology estimated that the cost of alcohol to the public purse was $15 billion. Revenue from the sale of alcohol was less than half that at $7.1 billion. The figures are probably higher now.

Then there are the health and accident costs. A 2017 report from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) reports that more than 5500 Australian lives are lost every year (an average of 15 a day), and more than 157,000 people are hospitalised due to alcohol (an average of 430 a day)!

The latest (2018) FARE report notes that the number of those who consume alcohol has increased to 82% (up from 77% the previous year). And 45% of Australians drink to get drunk—at times.

These are serious statistics. Is it un-Australian to cut back on drinking so you have less chance of becoming a statistic?

In memory of Alexander

Before Alexander’s death, Muir remembers, ‘I didn’t think about alcohol, the way I didn’t think about eating or breathing. It was just an essential part of existence.’

‘I don’t know why it was so important that there was alcohol, always … With it, everything was softer, easier. You had a drink and you slid into nonchalance and from there into conversations and new situations and adventures and forgetfulness.’

Yet, unless there’s a crisis or tragedy that hits home, it often isn’t recognised. For Muir, ‘It never occurred to me that I had a problem with drinking, or that Alexander had a problem with drinking, or that anyone I knew had a problem with drinking, despite the many incidents that indicated we did. The way we drank was just how everyone we knew drank.’

For Alexander, one of his mates told her: ‘I think me and him were probably the worst two at it. Ever since I can remember it’s the same thing—you’d drink until you couldn’t drink anymore and then you wouldn’t know what was going on, so you’d fall asleep somewhere.’

She finishes Wasted with this thought about Alexander: ‘What a waste of a life that was.’

Time for new heroes?

A couple of years ago I attended a funeral at Wesburn, on the Warburton Highway northeast of Melbourne. That’s when I discovered Harry’s headstone.

Harry died in 2012 at the age of 78. I never met or knew him and I don’t know his story, but his headstone proudly proclaims: ‘Sober for 30 years.’

Is it time to label Harry and people like him as heroes? At least it’s something worth celebrating.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Physical Health

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