A Brief History Of Alcohol Consumption In Australia

A Brief History Of Alcohol Consumption In Australia

Although most Australians would probably say we’ve always been a heavy-drinking nation, the consumption of alcohol has followed a roller coaster curve since European invasion. Rob Moodie, professor of global health at the University of Melbourne, examines our changing relationship with booze.

Drinking picture from Shutterstock (Flash Studio)

Alcohol consumption in Australia began at an annual high point of 13.6 litres of pure alcohol per head in the 1830s. It declined to 5.8 litres a year during the economic downturn in the 1890s, then to a nadir of 2.5 litres during the Great Depression.

After World War II, there was a long rise in per capita consumption to another high point of 13.1 litres in 1974-75. It then dropped again and rose slowly to the 2008-09 levels of ten litres.

There’s little doubt that alcohol is an important part of Australian culture. According to the author of The Rum State, Milton Lewis, heavy drinking was an established cultural norm transported to Australia at the time of colonisation.

It was the norm in Britain to drink heavily and gin epidemics were devastating entire communities at the time. Lewis says that alcohol in Europe had long served as a food and source of nutrition as the diets of the time were very restricted and there wasn’t a lot else to choose from.

Two drinking practices were established that still exist today. One is “shouting” in which each person in turn buys a round of drinks for the whole group; and the other, “work and bust”, is a prolonged drunken spree following a long period of hard work in the bush. This is basically an earlier term for the contemporary notion of binge drinking, and can be seen in the “Mad Monday” celebrations at the end of a football season.

But other factors were also at play. For a time, spirits were used in barter and convicts were part-paid in rum. In this way, rum became a currency of the colony — hence the term “a rum state”. The control of alcohol gave enormous political power. And alcohol was reportedly involved in the only military coup in Australia — the Rum rebellion in 1808.

Over the years, there have been many different social meanings of alcohol. In Australia and elsewhere, wine, brandy, beer and stout have been seen as good dietary supplements for invalids. Alcohol was once seen as a good, healthy food Lewis notes that it has been consumed as a sacrament, a toast, a fortifier, a sedative, a thirst-quencher, and a symbol of sophistication.

Temperance organisations sprang up in the early 19th century, and became active in Australian colonies from 1830s. They initially advocated moderation and would eventually demand prohibition. They were affiliated with Christian churches, and seen as a middle-class reaction to an upsurge in lower-class drinking of spirits, which was due to more industrialised production of distilled spirits, and the fear of the working class being more dangerous when drunk.

The highpoint of the temperance movement came during World War I and the Depression, when consumption went down dramatically across the English-speaking world. But after World War II, there was a backlash against the anti-alcohol movement. Drinking rates began to climb again along with growing prosperity and cultural shifts such as the changing role of women, and European immigration shaped the way we drank.

“Civilised” drinking — drinking with food and in moderation — became the norm. Wine became a much more popular drink by the 1960s and Australia invented the wine cask. A significant change occurred in Victoria in the 1980s with the Niewenhausen report, which promoted the liberalisation of licensing in Victoria. This was taken so keenly by successive Victorian governments that, on average, two new liquor licences were granted every day from 20 years from 1986.

But as large alcohol manufacturers increased their range of products, ramped up the amount they were producing, upped the sophistication and diversification of their advertising and allied themselves with major sports and the major media outlets, civilised drinking has not remained the norm for a sizeable proportion of the population. In the last two decades, binge drinking has again become fashionable.

And the harm these drinkers inflict on themselves and on a large proportion of the community is preventable.

It doesn’t have to be this way. History shows us that overall average rates of alcohol consumption in Australia can change quite dramatically over time, and that drinking practices are highly modifiable.

Rob Moodie received funding from the Department of Health and Ageing for work on the National Preventative Health Taskforce. He is deputy chair of the ANPHA Advisory Council.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • I’ve never understood the idea that alcohol is the centrepoint to having a good time.

    I don’t drink, never have and never will, so I can’t comment on why it is so, I just don’t understand why people rely, why it is so critical, to consume alcohol to have a good time. Or why people want to “get plastered” every weekend?

    • I drink, but almost never in excess.
      I think that people should have the right to choose to drink excessively, but they must accept the consequences of their behaviour and actions (ie. killing someone of they get behind the wheel of a car = prison time). I avoid heavy drinkers (lads and ladettes) because they can’t control themselves when they’re too drunk.
      To the author: what does 10 litres mean? 10 litres per week/month/year?

    • Really, the best way to find out is to try it once for yourself (with friends).
      I’m not saying it’s a great thing, I don’t even do it myself, but everytime I hear someone saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why people drink for fun” it’s from a non-drinker.

      • I drink when I go out…I don’t like it. Don’t understand why it’s fun, don’t understand how anyone can drink more than one or two -pints of the vile liquid which just drys your mouth out, don’t understand its addictive nature in any way.

    • Similarly, I don’t see why there’s a big social stigma with drinking alone. I sometimes like to recline on my sofa and enjoy a glass of whisky while I watch TV; to me it’s no different from having some tea or coffee.

      I feel like it’s movies that perpetuate this idea that if someone is on their own enjoying something then they’re somehow depressed. Some of us just value our ‘alone’ time away from others which is probably something extroverted people can’t understand. I go to watch movies on my own, go to cafés to enjoy a coffee and a good book and occasionally (usually when I’m overseas) will stop to drink at a nice bar and make small talk with the bartender.

    • I don’t understand it either.

      I drink, but never in excess. I’ve never ever been drunk and never plan to be. I enjoy my alcohol, but know my limits and stop before I’ve had too much.

      I’ve never understood the attraction of getting drunk. Getting really sick to the point of vomiting, not having control over your actions, and waking up the next morning with a splitting headache and no recollection of what happened the night before? Maybe it’s just me but that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time.

      I don’t judge anyone that chooses to do this however, I just personally don’t see the appeal of it.

  • @cayal – If you have never tried drinking then of course you don’t understand. If you have never eaten sugar then I’m sure it would be hard to understand why people like it so much as well.
    I don’t think that many people would say its “critical” to drink to have a good time, I’m sure majority of people would agree that they are perfectly capable of having a good time without drinking.

  • I lost a lot of friends since I gave up drinking excessively, sadly it seems it is the acceptable Australian norm.. But thankfully I am now happier & healthier than ever!

  • European colonisers coming to Australia, killing, raping and extorting the native population and claiming the land as their own? Seems like an invasion to me…

  • ^ evidence?

    I love how uni students and people who havnt sat through that much study on this like to throw accusations around.

    Settlement was PEACEFUL. Yes there was the stolen generation, yes there were race issues, land disputes etc.

    Last time I checked europeans did not rock up with a war armada declaring war on the indigenous population, and aiming to wipeout and enslave all of the people for the purpose of slaves and prostitution.


    • When the Europeans came to Australia and took the land, there was never any Treaty of Peace and no negotiations regarding occupancy of otherwise already occupied land, hence, according to international law and UN conventions, it counts as an invasion.

      Just because it was never a bloody battle doesn’t mean it wasn’t an invasion.

    • invasion does not mean war. You are aware of the concept of terra nullius right? By landing here the British basically said this country was now the property of the British Empire. Don’t And to suggest that there were no plans to get rid of the indigenous people is ludicrous. It doesn’t have to be genocide to invade and enslave.
      It’s not just about race issues and land disputes. You’re saying it like it was nothing. At the time there was no way an indigenous person (who was perceived as little more than an animal) had any rights and was simply a savage in their eyes. Its why the stolen generation came into effect. Aboriginals who had some ‘white’ blood in them were taken away in hopes their whiteness could allow them to become civilised in some form

      As for the massacres which occurred, have a look at this list

    • By the way, there was a systematic attempt to wipe out the First Nations as a “problem.” There were plenty of massacres. Look to a small wheatbelt town of Cunderdin in WA. There are basically no Aboriginals there because when the township was in inception, the local constublatory rounded up the locals at Cunderdin hill and summarily executed them. Aboriginals now consider the Hill to be a place where “bad spirits are,” and consequently avoid the place like the plague.

      Don’t be simple minded. THE ONLY “restitution” during the invasion was by a settler known as Batman, and then Crown didn’t’ acknowledge the transaction in the end either.

      If you want REFERENCES, I can give you a whole torrent load that we had to study as core medical curriculum.

  • It’s called colonization, look it up idiots.

    Massacres happened, idiots happen, but your still acting like England rocked up with intent to wipe out a population and use them as slaves and sex objects.

    For shame of what your calling the founding fathers of this country, have a think about this when your cashing your youth allowance cheque or enjoying your freedom and liberties.

    • I’m sure the founding fathers are ashamed that they colonised Australia for people like you.
      Shouldn’t you be posting this crap on Stormfront or something?

  • Australia was ‘settled’ in the same way that part of Palistine are being ‘settled’ by the Israelis. Basically you go in peacefully, put your house on someone else’s land and then bring ion the army when the rightful owners take it back.
    While the term ‘invasion’ is certainly emotive, ‘colonisation’ as it has been carried out around the world by the British, French, Belgians, Germans, Italians, Dutch, etc has always been an invasion by another name. The experience in Australia is no different.
    But lets get sidetracked from the main topic of an article about drinking.

  • So the argument is that those in the 60’s/70’s who drank MORE than we do, were better drinkers because they mainly did it with food?

    Anything to turn a gen Y positive into a gen Y negative by the baby boomers, hey?

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