A new temperance?

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The past year’s discussion on youth drinking, impaired driving and now the culture of alcohol use in the northwest has been interesting and challenging to many of my assumptions.

As the Northwestern Health Unit embarks on what might seem to me a doomed operation to nurture change in the culture surrounding booze in the region, I’ll admit I’m fascinated by the question of how to do this in the modern era. I’m supportive of the effort and the discussion it brings to the fore.

But how? Does one further restrict access to or the visibility of alcohol, perhaps lobby for increased enforcement of the law?

Is there a better way?

To suggest that public alcohol sales are under-regulated in our society is to risk the mocking laughter of anyone who’s ever staged a licensed event — from a birthday or anniversary party to a concert. Even the smallest gathering, properly licensed and insured, will set you back at least $350 in provincial fees and levies. That’s a deep enough hole for any group to think twice about liquor sales as a reliable fundraising scheme. I think it’s precisely why you don’t see many social events in Dryden anymore — they are too often financially risky for volunteer groups to host should they fail.

Does a town that struggles to mount one or two beer gardens per year really need a Municipal Alcohol Policy that further restricts the province’s efforts to ensure the events we still have left barely break even?

Public events are a big part of the discussion in the recent NWHU reports but is that where the problem drinking is happening? Youth are partying in gravel pits, crown land campsites and their friend’s basements — these peripheral places outside of the civic gaze where they’ve found some grudging, exasperated tolerance from parents and police who are just trying to keep them alive.

Dare I suggest there’s a case to be made about the loss of licensed public events to punitive levels of regulation and fees, which in turn pushes the alcohol culture beyond the reach of public health’s ability to shape it whatsoever.

While Dryden still has more churches than bars, these days society lacks the spiritual homogeneity to launch a modern day temperance movement by appealing to one’s respect for a moral authority.

We live in the era of ‘nudge theory’ — a movement in behavioural science that aims to alter the way large groups of people act through indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement without forbidding options or changing economic incentives.

A common example of nudge theory is: if you want people to eat better, you don’t ban junk food, you put fruits and vegetables at eye level, you package squares of chocolate individually, you force people to make frequent, active decisions rather than accept passive, habitual behaviour.

But how do you foster a movement towards moderation in an alcohol culture that has, for most of us, been pushed to the margins — to some bonfire in a forest clearing or behind closed doors of our homes where patterns of excess can become normalized?

Where are young people supposed see adults enjoying themselves and behaving responsibly around alcohol?

Where can you challenge and break that early impression that alcohol is a worthy activity in and of itself instead of a sort of ‘cultural ketchup’. A little goes a long way, but too much ruins the hot dog. — Chris Marchand

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