ALISON LAI: Tasmanians have a blind spot when it comes to the risks that alcohol and other drugs pose to all of us
THERE’S a common phrase that says that the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.
And when it comes to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in Tasmania, I get the impression that people don’t believe we have a problem.
People seem generally aware that there are some who need to access specialised services like detox, rehabilitation or group therapy sessions.
But for those who may not have someone close to them seeking this help, it’s easy to have the impression that alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are not a large problem in this state.
Not many Tasmanians would be aware that last year our island state was awarded the Fizzer Award by the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol for having the worst alcohol policies in the nation.
In the same year, Tasmania also came third in the National Tobacco Control Scorecard (also known as the Dirty Ashtray Award) for having the worst tobacco policies in Australia behind Victoria and the Northern Territory.
Luckily there isn’t an equivalent award for having the worst drug policies in the country, because based on our track record with alcohol and tobacco the odds are strong that we would be in the running for that unwanted accolade as well.
It’s important to understand that these awards are not bestowed upon us because we have substandard services, or unskilled workers in the Tasmanian alcohol and drugs sector.
They’re awarded to us because we are considered to have poor community-wide strategies and policies to minimise the harm of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs for everyone in our community.
Tasmania, we indeed have a problem.
However, despite all the evidence to support this I don’t think we’re ready to admit it.
And I believe the reason is because we have a blind spot to the extent of the problem.
It seems over decades of cultural influences, acceptance and stereotyping that we have developed an automatic mute button when it comes to the whole picture of the harm alcohol, tobacco and other drugs pose to all of us, and not just a select few.
To prove that this blind spot exists, I’ve been asking people to describe to me the type of person they think would be struggling with alcohol and other drugs.
People’s responses ranged from teenagers binge drinking on weekends, sporting fans boozed up at the weekend footy game to the drunk hanging out in their local park.
There was reference to people hanging out in the bus mall who are assumed to be unemployed but due to the cigarette in their hand must be prioritising their smoking habit over the household budget.
It was also obvious that we’ve been significantly impacted by images portrayed in the movies of “druggies” living in abandoned warehouses, sleeping on dirty mattresses and stealing cars to fund their habit.
Or closer to home we have been influenced by the images in the media of Australian emergency service workers struggling with people acting violently whilst under the influence of drugs like ice.
The descriptions given to me were of people that they didn’t identify as being like them.
This is some of the reality, but it is far from the whole picture of what is happening here in Tasmania.
Alcohol impacts parents who are holding down jobs, paying their mortgage and raising their children whilst sharing a couple of bottles of wine most nights.
Highly functioning alcoholics, who are binge-drinking on a regular basis but because they rarely miss a day of work, their drinking is not seen as an issue.
Drugs are impacting the young lad who hurt his back on the sporting field who now finds himself dependent on painkillers, but hides his drug-use from his mates and takes risks mixing his medication with dangerous levels of alcohol.
Tobacco is impacting the single mother juggling the responsibilities of parenthood whilst struggling to break her packet-a-day smoking habit, which to her is an important stress-relief that gets her through her day.
If we are to solve the problem and provide the help that is needed it’s vital that we break the stereotype about who needs help.
It’s vital because those parents I mentioned are at significant risk of developing chronic health conditions such as stomach or liver cancer.
That young man is at extreme risk of an accidental overdose and that single mother is relying on a stress relief that we know is going to cut her life short.
If we can admit, beyond stereotypes, that our problems with alcohol and other drugs are wide-ranging then we can move forward with community-wide solutions to solve them.
It’s time for Tasmania to move away from labels such as the Fizzer and the Dirty Ashtray.