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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Australia battles rise in alcohol abuse
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

A man drinks a pint of beer (file image)
Experts say alcohol is damaging the health of Australians
Alcohol increasingly has Australia in its poisonous grip.

One in eight Australians drink at dangerous levels. The effects on long-term health are likely to be catastrophic.

Australia has always had a boozy reputation but excessive drinking is on the rise.

Doctors are warning of a surge in chronic diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver and cancers as well as brain disorders in the next 20 years.

"Unfortunately Australia has a massive alcohol drinking problem," said Associate Professor Gordian Fulde from Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital.

"It's our culture, our society accepts it and in some ways society encourages it."

"Alcohol leaves all the other drugs - heroin, ecstasy, ice (methamphetamine) - absolutely for dead," he told the BBC.

"They're minute compared to problems caused by alcohol drinking."

'Out of control'

On average about 10 Australians die every day as a result of alcohol consumption.

It is a health calamity that affects the lives of so many.

The Australian National Council on Drugs has found that 230,000 children have a parent or carer who drinks excessively.

Professor Gordian Fulde
It's our culture, our society accepts it and in some ways society encourages it
Prof Gordian Fulde

"I think what's happened here (is) it's a reflection of our prosperity, in the sense that there's more money that is available for drinking alcohol," said the council's chairman Doctor John Herron, who pointed out that the cost of beer, wine and spirits has also gone down.

Research has shown that those families with alcohol problems are also commonly affected by mental illness as well as physical and sexual abuse.

Australia's indigenous population is suffering more than any other group.

Black Australians are twice as likely to die from the effects of drinking as their non-Aboriginal counterparts. A recent report showed that alcohol misuse claims the life of an Aborigine every 38 hours.

Suicide is the greatest cause of death among intoxicated men, while many women die of liver cirrhosis or strokes.

Some have managed to conquer their demons, but those dark days of the past are never far from the surface.

"I'm compulsive, I'm out of control when I'm drinking," said Les Beckett, a middle-aged Aboriginal man from Queensland. "I'm a nasty piece of work when I'm drinking and I'm a sorry piece of work and dangerous."

Les admitted to beating his late wife and stealing from his children during his alcoholic years. Les has remained sober for the past two decades but staying on the straight and narrow is a constant battle.

'Social suicide'

There is a feeling that Aborigines turn to booze and other drugs because they feel left behind by mainstream society more than two centuries after European colonisation.

Aboriginal people gather in a street in Alice Springs (file image)
Alcohol abuse is rife among the Aboriginal community

"To understand alcohol abuse, we need to look at the ways in which our people have been treated over the last 200 years," explained indigenous Pastor Ray Minniecon.

"Most of this stuff is just a broken spirit of the Aboriginal people... and alcohol abuse becomes a substitute for the spirit that we'd like to have."

Beer and wine have been outlawed in some 'dry' indigenous communities but for many the cravings remain irresistible.

Despite the gloom - and there is plenty of that - there is hope that things will one day improve.

"There's a strong capacity in our people to make sure we survive," said Ray Minniecon. "We don't know how we're going to eradicate it (the abuse of alcohol) but we can heal ourselves through our own culture which makes our spirit strong."

Australians - both black and white - are increasingly hitting the bottle.

Binge drinking has emerged as the real menace. Those who have to pick up the pieces say the situation is out of control and getting worse.

"The thing that is very scary is that females - especially young females - have now adopted and may be even improving on male drinking habits," said Gordian Fulde.

"Alcohol is a poison. It rots your brain. It is just absolute social suicide," he said grimly.

Alcohol 'time-bomb' of Aborigines
12 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Booze ban extended for Aborigines
17 Apr 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia's lost generation
16 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Australia
09 May 07 |  Country profiles

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