Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Constructing the Drinker in Talk about Alcoholics

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Constructing the Drinker in Talk about Alcoholics

Article excerpt

Contemporary understandings of alcoholism in New Zealand can be traced to the temperance movement in the mid 19th century, which was underpinned by Christian values of modesty and restraint (Eldred-Grigg, 1984). Alcohol consumption was seen as a personal choice, drunkenness framed as a weakness of moral character and alcoholics deemed as responsible for their condition due to character flaws (Kellehear & Cvetkovski, 2004). Temperance societies promoted their cause widely, with the ultimate aim of achieving prohibition. Inspired by developments in the medical field, temperance advocates soon turned towards pathology as an explanation for moral and social complaints (Fingarette, 1988). Consequently, the disease concept of alcoholism was created.

Converging and overlapping with the disease model was a notion proffered by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA); that drinking only results in alcoholism for those who have a biological or spiritual vulnerability (Fingarette, 1988). However, AA eventually acquired the disease vernacular and now describes alcoholism as a progressive and virulent illness, originating from some deficiency and which can only be checked by complete abstinence (Lee, 2004; Mann, 1952). More recent theories have attempted to find evidence for a qualitative difference between those who develop alcoholism and those who do not. These theories frame alcoholism as a personality flaw (Lee, 2004), a behavioural problem (Ritter & Lintzeris, 2004), or a genetic deficiency (True et al., 1999).

Public awareness about societal costs of excess drinking contributes to contemporary debates. The financial burden of alcohol consumption in New Zealand has been estimated at between $1 billion and $4 billion per year in direct and indirect costs (Alcohol Advisory Council, ALAC, 2006; Devlin, Schuffham & Blunt, 1997). According to Connor, Broad, Jackson, Vander Hoorn and Rehm (2004), approximately 3.9% of deaths in 2000 were directly attributable to alcohol consumption, and the vast majority of these deaths were related to accidental injury. Despite these statistics and regular public education campaigns about careless drinking, society generally has a positive attitude toward alcohol, and is reasonably tolerant of occasional drunkenness (ALAC, 2005b).

Attitudes toward Alcoholics

Alcoholics have historically been viewed somewhat inconsistently. Although the disease concept has been popular, moral weakness has also persistently and concurrently been advocated by many (Caetano, 1987; Crawford & Heather, 1987). Caetano's study showed that, although participants often felt recovered and abstinent alcoholics deserved respect, many would not want to live near a treatment centre. Early opinion studies were conducted in New Zealand on the subject of alcoholism and social rejection in the context of mental illness (Blizard, 1969; 1970). Blizard's findings indicate that the New Zealand public was tolerant of alcoholic behaviour to the point where it departs from what was considered "normal" or "sane" behaviour. However, very few of those interviewed would accept close or continuous contact with an alcoholic and most respondents believed the cause of alcoholism was lack of moral fibre.

Public opinions toward alcoholics have not significantly improved over recent times, and remain somewhat inconsistent. One Polish study (Sulek, Korczak-Dziurdzik, Korbel-Pawlas, Lyznicka & Czarnecki, 2006) revealed that 76% of society members thought that a person treated for alcohol addiction is as worthy of respect as others, yet 50% of the same sample felt that treated alcoholics cannot be trusted in the same way as non-alcoholics. Thirty three percent of this sample also thought that children of alcoholics could have a bad influence on other children. One large-scale survey found that, out of nine health conditions, alcoholism was the disease for which respondents believed medical care and expenditure should be reduced or even eliminated (Beck, Dietrich, Matschinger & Angermeyer, 2003). …

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