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Alcohol Crisis Grips Australia

Increasingly, alcohol is enfolding Australia in its grip. A new report says that one in eight Aussies drinks at dangerous levels. Aboriginal Australians are suffering far more than most: they're twice as likely to die from the effects of drinking alcohol as their non-indigenous counterparts. The effects on the country's long-term health could be catastrophic. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney.

Australia has always had a boozy reputation, but excessive drinking is on the rise.

Doctors are warning of a surge in chronic diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver, cancers and brain disorders in the next 20 years.

Gordian Fulde, an associate professor at Sydney's St. Vincent's Hospital, says the situation is getting out of hand.

"Unfortunately, I have to admit that Australia has a massive alcohol drinking problem. It's our culture," he said. "Our society accepts it, and in some ways our society encourages it. People go out [and] instead of drinking a couple of beers or whatever, a few glasses of wine - they drink five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 in one session, which is very, very detrimental to their health - and they do it many nights in a row."

The Australian National Council on Drugs warns in a new report that one in eight people here now consumes dangerous levels of alcohol. The council has found that 230,000 children have a parent or care-giver who drinks excessively.

The council, which is sponsored by the government, has estimated that crime, injuries and health problems associated with alcohol abuse cost Australia almost $6.5 billion every year.

Despite the warnings - and there are many of them - Australians continue to drink excessively.

Alcohol is widely available and relatively cheap here. Liquor stores and pubs have long opening hours, and drinking to the point of intoxication is socially acceptable.

"Wake up, start drinking beer, drink right through, then end up going out and having fun and partying. Been a way of life," said one man. "People around me always been drinking beers and, you know, you only live once - may as well have fun while you're doing it."

"My family's riddled with alcoholism," said another Australian. "Father died from it, friends are dying from it."

And many younger women are also heavy drinkers, preferring the so-called 'lolly drinks' or sweet-tasting mixes of spirits and soft drinks.

"Every weekend go out Friday, Saturday, drink a fair bit, yeah, out with friends," said one woman. "Two four-packs [Bacardi] Breezers, Cruisers - yeah, the lolly drinks."

If white Australia has a serious alcohol problem things are far worse for the indigenous population.

A recent report showed that alcohol abuse claims the life of an Aborigine every 38 hours. Suicide is the greatest cause of death among aboriginal men, while many women die of liver cirrhosis or strokes.

To a large extent, Aborigines have been left behind by mainstream Australian society, more than two centuries after the continent was colonized by Europeans.

Linda Burney, the first indigenous member of the New South Wales state parliament, says Aborigines have been so badly treated, it is hardly surprising so many turn to booze and drugs.

"Most people drink because there are issues in their life that are very difficult to deal with," she said. "When you understand the history of subjugation, you understand the history of oppression and you understand the nature of the relationship from time of British invasion, you come to understand just how desperate and how destitute many Aboriginal people, families and communities are, and there is a direct relationship between that and substance abuse."

Beer and wine have been outlawed in some 'dry' indigenous communities but for many the cravings remain irresistible.

Despite the gloom - and there's plenty of that - there is hope that things will one day improve.

Les Beckett is an alcoholic. He's a middle-aged Aboriginal man from the northern Australian state of Queensland who has been sober for 20 years, thanks to the support of church groups and counselors.

He has managed to conquer his demons, but those dark days of the past are never far from the surface.

Beckett used to beat his wife and neglect his family when he was in alcohol's grip.

"You know, never cared about my kids, never cared about my late wife," he said. "I'm compulsive. I'm out of control when I'm drinking. I'm a nasty piece of work when I'm drinking and I'm a sorry piece of work too, like - you know?"

St. Vincent's Professor Fulde says alcohol is condemning a growing number of Australians - both black and white - to a life of disease and illness. He says even people who don't drink excessively are doing themselves damage.

"The health problems we are storing up are massive. I mean, simply put - somebody who drinks a moderate amount of alcohol, still functional: jobs, family, all that sort of thing - has decreased immunity to infection and all these things. In other words they'll get the common cold more often, etc., so those are the softer things you can't measure," he said. "Then the liver packs up. As you get older your brain - it rots your brain. That's all there is about it. It rots your brain. So it is just absolute social suicide."

Australia's reputation as a fun-loving country that enjoys barbeques and beer still applies, but a growing number of people are falling victim to alcohol's charms.