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The Reasons Of Aboriginal Alcohol And Substance Abuse

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Who are aboriginal people? It is generalised that Australian aboriginal peoples originated from Asia through limited Southeast Asia (now Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Philippines) and have been in Australia for at least 50,000 years. When the British settlement started dating from 1788, the arrival of carriers of a powerful imperialist culture cost the aboriginal people their independence and the undeniable control of the continent, and forced them into continuous compromise and change as they struggled to accommodate the newcomers. Dispute soon developed between the colonist and the Aboriginal peoples. Communication was minimal and the cultural differences was huge. Once the foreign settlement began to expand inland, it conflicted directly with Aboriginal land occupancy and economic activities demanded the desecration of Aboriginal sacred sites and property. When all situations were pursued with conflicting interests the Europeans viewed Aboriginal peoples as parasites upon nature, discriminating their culture in negative terms. The Aboriginal peoples waged lengthy and effective guerrilla movements until they were finally overcome by force of arms.

Living a life of tribally and linguistically mixed communities went on for ages when they were forced into fringe settlements. Only at the turn of the 21st century where cultural revival was emphasised, a formal apology for past mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples was released by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. However the stolen generations’ effects and consequences was undeniably drastic for the community. They were left affected in the direction of Relationships, Personal, Economic, Law & justice, Health, Spiritual and Cultural views. Is it something they turned into or were they forced into by the actions of the colonist? Are these effects directly or indirectly linked to their sociological behaviour that class them as a community that is prone to alcohol and substance abuse? If they were, is it a choice of their own or a resort they take up to comfort their situation?

Who assumes that they are prone to alcohol or substance? What aspects are considered to come to this assumption? “One common stereotype of Indigenous Australians is that they all drink alcohol to excess. But the reality is that a smaller percentage of Aborigines drink alcohol than do other Australians”— Mick Dodson & Toni Bauman [1]

Many of the non-aboriginals encounter aboriginals in their own socio environmental areas and see the population of aboriginal people who are using or abusing alcohol and other substances. This is one of the key elements that make them stereotype Aboriginals as a community that is prone to alcohol and or substance abuse. There is a large population of Aboriginals that do live in concentrated communities of their own where their living does not reflect the same as the small population of aboriginals we encounter that we make our judgements from.

While Aboriginal people generally drink less than non-Aboriginal people, those who do are more likely to drink at hazardous levels. Unfortunately, many reports focus on these results rather than the fact that generally they drink less.

Most persons stressed that not all Aboriginals had alcohol problems – many didn’t drink at all, or drank only very lightly, but the problem was that many of those who did drink did so very heavily. – Findings in a 1994 National Drug Strategy Household Survey [2]

Fewer Aboriginal people drink daily or at least once a week than non-Indigenous people do. Many more Aboriginal people consume alcohol once a month or even less frequently. This is in stark contrast to the image the media tries to reinforce when reporting about ‘staggering quantities of alcohol’ (Time Magazine, August 2006) being consumed. [3]

There are numerous reasons of Aboriginal alcohol or substance abuse:

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Place Order
  • Collapse of traditional social pedals.
  • Traditionally, ceremonies established and ritually passed tribal identity.
  • No longer following traditional rules for behaviour around alcohol. Prior to incursion strict rules administered consumption of alcohol-like beverages.
  • A culturally pervaded sharing philosophy lets Aboriginal people share resources most of the times (e.g. money, cars).
  • Control forced on Aboriginal people (e.g. the Northern Territory Intervention) is met with resistance.
  • These require healing, but people use alcohol to ‘deaden the pain and anger’, which follows childhood abuse, violence or bullying. Losing inhibition is an aim when drinking, giving people an outlet for their poisonous rage in yelling, screaming and violence [4].
  • There is a lack of procedures for reducing strains and frustrations happening as a result of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, racism, boredom or displacement.

In August 2006 the Australian version of the Time Magazine published the article ‘The Demon Drink’ that suggests that Aboriginal people drink heavily. The article calls Aboriginal drinking in the remote outback town of Borroloola a ‘drinking epidemic’, claiming that ‘most Top End towns’ share this fate and Borroloola is ‘just another community in the queue’ for support plans from the NT government. This article was part of the magazine’s ‘Australian Journeys’ special which was to ‘capture the spirit of the longest road in the South Pacific’, the Highway No. 1. Richard Baker in his book Land is Life, published in 1999, tells the story of the Yanyuwa people, most of whom now live in or near Borroloola. Baker finds an altogether different situation,”The Aboriginal drinking problem in town [Borroloola] is highly visible while the large number of people living on ‘dry’ outstations is invisible. As a result, tourists tend to end up having negative stereotypes of Aboriginal culture reinforced”. – Richard Baker, Land is Life, p.123

The reporters didn’t make the effort to visit one of the outstations (or ‘homelands’) where Aboriginal people control aspects of their life and put up ‘no grog allowed’ signs on the approach roads. This control over alcohol is denied to them in the town of Borroloola. “It should be stressed how different Borroloola is from nearby ‘closed’ Aboriginal communities in

Arnhem Land. For example, the Yanyuwa would like to control the sale of alcohol to Aboriginal people in Borroloola but are unable to do so”. – Richard Baker, Land is Life, p.119

This kind of undeniable biased review of Aboriginals are a critical aspect of the stereotyping of the whole community. One notion claims that the obvious litter of beer cans and wine cartons is a manifestation of resistance towards white management of Aboriginal lives. If we consider just the statistics for the remote and thinly populated Northern Territory, around 25% of Indigenous people consume alcohol which is lesser than the figure for all of Australia.

Strategies Aboriginal people use to avoid alcohol abuse are the declaration of ‘dry zones’ within Indigenous communities, prohibition and restriction in shops and supermarkets, community policing and licensing, replacing alcohol with Kava, an alternative drink from the Pacific Island made from the crushed root of a pepper plant mixed with water. It has to be kept in mind, however, that such projects are in danger of failing until the causes of excessive drinking are removed.

Also communities can take further actions to control the alcohol or substance problems by creating a banned drinkers register, a system of restricting problem drinkers from buying takeaway alcohol or drinking at a pub. Alternatively, communities can issue drinking permits. Nhulunbuy and nearby communities, including Yirrkala, have such a permit system which is seen as an example of community-controlled success. [5]

Designed in 2002 by a women’s group in collaboration with 13 local clans, it requires anyone who wants to buy alcohol across the 5 communities to have a permit, with varying restrictions determined by each community’s committee.

Combining both systems means that individuals must have clearance from both the banned drinkers register and the community permit system if they want to buy alcohol. People can also volunteer to be restricted from alcohol sales. Women in particular are already volunteering to give up their right to buy alcohol to avoid pressure from family to buy it for them. [5]

Aboriginal peoples being prone to alcohol abuse or substance abuse is in the same category as any other community that takes alcohol and substance as a distraction or a form of comfort when they are mentally low on spirit and feel unwanted or unwelcomed. Most people whether Aboriginals or not turn to be alcoholics and substance abusers due to similar state of mind or problems. Hence the statement or question of “Why are aboriginal prone to alcohol and substance abuse?” can be asked about any one from any socio demographic background who seeks for alcohol or other substance as a resort for comfort. Aboriginals do show an undeniable variation of effects in their life from past happenings and current lifestyle or trend in life that make a noticeable percentage of them to turn out to abuse alcohol or other substance. It is only right of us to look at the root cause of the situation than stereotype a group of people and take it for granted that the specific population of people are prone to such habits. It’s a choice made by a particular person and the reason needs to be addressed and the help or direction to help should be provided to control or eliminate this issue.


  1. ‘Aboriginal Australia & the Torres Strait Islands’, Lonely Planet, 2001, p.124
  2. Source: Aboriginal alcohol consumption – Creative Spirits, retrieved from
  3. ‘The rage epidemic’, SMH 2/8/2008
  4. ‘Tackling alcohol in remote areas: communities plead for local control’, The Guardian Australia 4/7/2017

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The Reasons Of Aboriginal Alcohol And Substance Abuse. (2021, September 07). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 28, 2023, from
“The Reasons Of Aboriginal Alcohol And Substance Abuse.” Edubirdie, 07 Sept. 2021,
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