Teenage binge drinking is a topic that is constantly debated in Australia and recent events in Sydney’s Kings Cross have once again brought the issue to national prominence. It is an issue that Steve Irons, federal member for Swan, has unwaveringly campaigned on, determined to curb the rampant Australian binge-drinking culture.
Irons has been the Liberal member for the Swan electorate since 2007. He won the seat with a swing of 0.19 per cent votes and was the only Coalition challenger to unseat a Labor incumbent in the 2007 election. Irons’ campaigns on road safety, local schools, the environment and crime reduction have struck a chord in the seat of Swan and he was re-elected in 2010 by a slightly larger margin.
But it is his outspoken stance against binge drinking that he is renowned for. Irons’ passion for the issue is personal and stems from an early age, when he was orphaned as a three year old because it was deemed that his parents were incapable of looking after him. It turned out he was the lucky one, as those that stayed at home with his biological parents were often beaten by his intoxicated father. Later, in 2004, Irons’ sister Margaret fell from a balcony to her death. Her blood alcohol level was a staggering 0.342.
He is refreshingly open about his childhood and his first-hand experiences with alcohol abuse: ‘I decided to share my experiences so hopefully other people would learn from it and if it only saved one person’s life it would have been worth sharing the personal information.’
Irons tells his sister’s story in order to raise awareness of the dangers of binge drinking and alcohol abuse. ‘I don’t think we will ever totally stop binge drinking and it might take generations to change the badge of honour mentality of getting pissed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,’ he says.
When speaking about his 19-year-old son Jarred, Irons says: ‘As a parent you face many challenges and it is important to see the end of the game and keep in mind the outcome you would like to see your child become.’
He firmly believes that raising Jarred, along with his own experiences, influences his work when it comes to young drinkers. Although Irons says that university students are an important demographic to consider when targeting binge drinking, he believes that it needs to be looked at within all ages and societies.
‘The fact is as a society we encourage drinking through all forms of media but then ignore people who are drunk. This is an area where, not only as a society, but we as individuals need to cease promotion of alcohol as being ‘cool’ and also help people who are drunk to avoid injury whether it be life threatening or just dangerous.’
In 2008, the Rudd government introduced the alcopop tax, which increased the cost of alcopops by approximately 70 per cent. The tax was predominantly an attempt to discourage teenagers from binge drinking, as it was believed that this age bracket was the most susceptible to alcohol abuse.
Irons’ personal solution to Australia’s binge drinking problem differs from Kevin Rudd’s alcopop tax. ‘I think it will be through an education process with parental assistance. The education process in schools might assist with hospital visits to victims of alcohol abuse.’
Statistics have proven that parental guidance is a key factor in the war against binge drinking. In 2008, when the tax was brought in, a Victorian schools survey found evidence that some underage drinkers had stuck with alcopops – partly because the tax fails to influence parents, the main source of teenagers’ alcohol.
‘Our whole society needs to comprehend the dangers of alcohol abuse and it needs to start at the teenage years, as I fear once a pattern is set at early ages it lasts through a person’s entire life,’ says Irons.
He also suggests nominating somebody to be a non-drinker, to ensure that if binge drinking does occur that it doesn’t get out of hand. However, when it comes to teenagers and university students, being the ‘deso’ is not always appealing and it is often hard to find someone that will offer to sit out from drinking.
For example, La Trobe University’s on campus colleges have student leaders that are required to remain sober at each social event held by the university. These leaders are an example of what Irons is suggesting when it comes to controlling binge drinking and making sure nobody gets hurt. However, he reiterates that the bigger problem is trying to change the ‘badge of honour mentality’ that many Australians have towards drinking and being ‘cool’.
‘This will be a generational change and won’t happen overnight,’ says Irons. ‘But if we can change attitudes about smoking, we should at least try and make people aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse.’
Irons believes that it a lack of knowledge of the dangers of alcohol that keep young people binge drinking. If they were more educated perhaps there would be less alcohol abuse and binge drinking. Education is crucial says Irons, and it’s the responsibility of schools to offer alcohol education alongside sex education.
Binge drinking is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but it’s undoubtedly a socially undesirable one. With his family history at the forefront of his mind, Steve Irons is leading the charge against alcoholism in society.
Samantha McMeekin is a student at La Trobe University.
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