The identity of the Osservatorio Permanente sui Giovani e l’Alcool: in favour of a social alcohology

The need for an Osservatorio

The Osservatorio Permanente sui Giovani e l’Alcool was created at the beginning of the Nineties due to a need to acquire and consolidate, with scientifically reliable means, knowledge of the alcoholism phenomenon in all its complexity and multi-dimensionality.

From the very start, the objectives that characterised the Osservatorio’s mission were research in the field, accompanied by a detailed identification of methodologies available, focusing on various consumption models, the choice to favour the observation of the universe of the young, using an integrated multidisciplinary system and the anthropological-cultural analysis of the alcohol/society relationship.

The Osservatorio’s philosophy

Notwithstanding that the Osservatorio’s main objective is the study of the relationship between the young and alcohol, one must emphasise that this is based on the assumption that the consumption of alcoholic drinks follows rules that vary, according to their cultural and social nature, depending on time and place. These variations are the consequence of an ongoing evolution of the values and meanings that are in turn attributed to the consumption of alcoholic drinks.

Changes in consumption of alcoholic drinks, and the values and meanings attributed to this, create difficulties in the interpretation of the relationship with drink due to the currently prevailing dichotomic categories, such as those that oppose use to abuse. To understand these phenomena, it is considered a priority to comprehend the manners in which use and abuse occur.

Consequently, the central nucleus of the theoretical and methodological references the Osservatorio has assumed consists of human sciences, broadly speaking, and social sciences, while considering one-sided the mainly medical-health approach.

Methodological rigour is the fundamental basis through which the Osservatorio distinguishes between facts and figures, between what really exists, regardless of the observer, and the value judgements that various kinds of behaviour can elicit.

Having acknowledged complexity of the “alcohol universe,” the Osservatorio believes that the interpretation of such complexities requires a synergy of various disciplines, competences and knowledge. The predominant “public health” approach, albeit important when considering problems linked to the consequences of alcohol abuse, provides a partial perspective of these phenomena and is incapable of considering the profound nature of individual and/or collective behaviour, running the risk of proposing solutions that are not very incisive in solving the problems.

The medical approach and consequent legal proposals do not take into account that behind the relationship between individuals and alcoholic drinks is a millenary-old “history.”

This history tells us of a very profound bond between alcohol, in its various uses and values, and human life. It is a history that tells us above all that this bond has resisted, and continues to resist, whatever intervention may have been implemented by society. The failure of various kinds of prohibition provides the best evidence of this.

Naturally, it is one thing to acknowledge that practices so filled with human experiences and meanings cannot (and perhaps should not) be up-rooted, and another to remain cynically indifferent when faced with the suffering that these practices can cause.

From this point of view, albeit reasserting a total readiness to integrate with other disciplines, the alcohological research carried out by the Osservatorio favours an anthropological-cultural and psycho-sociological interpretation of alcohol-related behaviour. Through this research, the Observatory intends to promote, at both a national and international level, a “social alcohology” capable of integrating bio-medical knowledge to propose to policy makers juridical intervention based on interpretations that take into account the “globality” of the problems and their various aspects.

A “global” vision of alcohol-related behaviour must necessarily take into account all the “players on the stage.” Within this framework, the Osservatorio’s philosophy is to consider and dialogue with all the realities involved, without prejudice and preconceived exclusions. It must implement research activities to maintain as a priority its own independence in formulating working hypotheses, in choosing methodologies, in the presentation and criticism of the results obtained. All this regardless of the nature of the commission.

The international context

Europe is the place where alcohol quantity and quality maintains a significant supremacy in consumption models, the tastes of consumers and their symbolic portrayal. There is often a tripartite subdivision into Latin-Mediterranean drinking, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic drinking and Nordic-Scandinavian drinking. Such references have, over time, resulted in a very cultural characterisation of the alcohol system, both in its accepted forms and in links with abuse, deviancy and social, religious or penal condemnation. Faced with a generalised trend to reduce consumption, one effectively sees a greater convergence in consumer behaviour, in the lifestyle linked to alcohol and in a shared search for quality rather than quantity. The cultural barriers that seemed to have been established due to a sort of geographical determinism have given way to a European consumer present with similar features at the continents’ various latitudes.

However, in spite of this trend towards standardisation, in Italy one still sees the characteristics of a “Mediterranean” consumption of alcohol, linked to conviviality, food, as well as rituality and family drinking traditions. This means that within the European scenario, Italy is one of the countries in which, in spite of an extremely high number of more or less regular drinkers (70-80%), the percentage of abuse and alcoholism is relatively low.

The Osservatorio believes that “Mediterranean drinking” is a model to be defended since it contains “protective” values as far as excessive consumption is concerned. It is within the family circle that the younger generations can physiologically learn and develop a responsible style in consuming alcohol. This viewpoint is not in line with the state-controlled vision of European health policies proposed by the World Health Organisation’s European Offices. The Osservatorio instead prefers a negotiating approach based on the mutual acknowledgement of the need for freedom and that of protecting collective interests.

The Osservatorio’s fields of research and commitment

The Osservatorio’s priority choice in developing its mission was to devote itself to the world of the young. The young not only represent society’s future, but are also the more immediate expression of the changes society will experience, as well as the heralds of social unease.

In approaching the world of the young, the Osservatorio’s position is one of extreme respect for them, avoiding all moralistic and judgemental attitudes. The problems deriving from excessive consumption of alcohol by the young should be addressed through a process that bears in mind the following elements:

a)   Awareness and understanding of the phenomenon:

With its bio-psycho-social approach, the Observatory is committed to monitoring the behaviour, habits and lifestyles of the young, bearing in mind the fast evolution of cultural models, drinking styles and the meaning and values attributed to these by the social players. The observation of these phenomena – rejecting alarmist exploitations – is oriented at understanding the dynamics that lead a minority of young people to consider alcoholic drinks as a means of transgression and/or evasion and/or self-medication. This minority requires particular attention since it represents the weak and the vulnerable in the universe of the young, for whom early identification and specific intervention is needed. Considering this minority as representative of all the young is not only a misrepresentation of reality (since the majority of young people drink in a responsible and moderate manner), but, paradoxically, means emphasising a life and consumption style that in the collective imagination is considered “winning,” since it provides privileged access to fame through the  mass media.

b)   Promotion of wellbeing and abuse prevention:

One of the Osservatorio’s main objectives is to promote education among the young and adults to drink responsibly. This means promoting a lifestyle model and a social context addressed at people’s psycho-physical wellbeing. It is within such a model that a person can freely make a choice on how to behave in relation to individual and collective health, also on the basis of an awareness of the effects of alcohol and the damage linked to abuse. This requires a presence and a continuity of action that, using research-intervention methods, leads to the identification of effective educational initiatives, strictly linked to relational and social contexts.

c)   Acceptance and responsibility for establishing a dialogue:

Acknowledging the existence of a vulnerable group in the world of the young, for whom alcoholic excess is only one of the risk factors, the Osservatorio also addresses the problem of how adults deal with this unease and what answers are provided to help them overcome it.

d)   Juridical aspects:

The Osservatorio’s fundamental philosophy believes that effective prevention policies for abuse risk should be implemented through capillary and widespread education encouraging responsible drinking and self-regulation. However, the Osservatorio acknowledges the need, and at times the urgency, for society to adopt measures inducing a responsible use of alcoholic drinks, above all so as to guarantee the security and rights of everyone. At the same time the Osservatorio is committed to monitor and verify to what extent the measures adopted to modify behaviour and life styles are effective.

In favour of an orientation of policies

Orienting policies primarily means learning from past mistakes. When speaking of mistakes, prohibition in the United States, with its well-known costs in terms of organised crime, is a perfect example. The lesson is a simple and clear one. The law does not have the power to repress a need with millenary roots in almost all the cultures of the globe. The law can and must regulate at-risk situations that alcohol, due to its ambivalence, is capable of creating, but it cannot ignore by denying them the pleasure and wellbeing that alcohol consumption involves.

The accent placed exclusively on the substance’s negative aspects expresses a scientifically incorrect position since it is unilateral. Wishing to reasonably change certain behaviours, because they are considered damaging, requires not only great prudence (the risk of undesirable of even opposite results is quite high especially when dealing with the young), but also rigorous attention paid to the material and cultural context referred to.

This means involving those interested, their social networks, and last but not least all the institutions that, with differing responsibilities, deal with the young.