If effective steps to change New Zealand's heavy drinking culture are not taken soon, it is likely that the widespread damage associated with excess alcohol will continue for decades to come.
OPINION: The Law Commission's "first principles" review, now in process, gives us a once-in-a-generation chance to have a fresh look at the alcohol laws and do something serious about stopping the damage.
The starting point, as Sir Geoffrey Palmer and his team have said, is that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity; it is a psychoactive recreational drug.
Many people may use this drug safely and happily, but for tens of thousands of others it does harm to their lives, health and families.
The Palmer review quotes our group's research that as a drug, alcohol has the same high risk to public health as Class B drugs scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1989), such as morphine, ecstasy and d-amphetamine.
Despite this level of dangerousness, alcohol is available for sale in many supermarkets 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 363 days of the year. Furthermore, it is sold to the public at highly discounted prices, often by very young shop assistants.
Because alcohol is so much part of our social traditions and heritage, it is hard to imagine the alcohol industry is actually a drug-pushing industry. It spends about $200,000 a day trying to coax us all to use as much of this drug as possible.
It has identified two large sub-populations of New Zealand for special attention in the past 10 years - young people and women. This targeting has led to the age of onset of teenage drinking falling, the amount drunk by teenagers rising and the extent of drinking by women, especially young women, vastly increasing over this time.
These changing statistics have not been a random accident. They have been strategically planned for in the boardrooms of the big alcohol companies, which have then exploited the extremely favourable commercial environment in New Zealand within which to enact their clever marketing plans.
The factor that is most concerning and insidious is the ability of these drug merchants to use the power of modern marketing science and mass communication to influence people, especially our children, to begin using their product in large quantities and develop a life-long habit of alcohol drug use. We've seen this before, with the targeting of young people and women by tobacco companies keen to build new markets.
The $200,000 a day spent on alcohol promotion by the alcohol industry is the most important preventable factor normalising and maintaining the heavy drinking culture in New Zealand, with all of its socially destructive and criminal consequences.
Justice Minister Simon Power told the Hospitality Association of New Zealand's annual conference that how we drink as a nation is "a product of our culture, and will only change gradually over time".
That must have been music to the ears of the alcohol industry, for it bypasses the controversial question of what is creating this culture and it treats "our culture" as if it is a natural phenomenon that cannot be changed.
Our alcohol-oriented heavy-drinking culture is essentially the collective behavioural patterns of heavy drinkers, numbering at least 700,000 citizens, as defined by World Health Organisation best practice criteria.
This represents the population of Wellington and Christchurch combined. But what is missing from Mr Power's analysis is that these are the favourite customers of the alcohol industry and have been the focus of intensive and undisclosed market research by the industry for decades.
The reality is that our heavy-drinking culture is not going to change spontaneously by itself, especially not with all the present marketing and advertising pushing in the wrong direction. Without serious government intervention, Mr Power is spot on in his assessment; the culture will continue with little change.
But a government's job isn't to be a pessimistic observer; it is there to do something constructive about social problems where it can, and an obvious government intervention required here is a significant reduction in the millions of dollars each year that go into alcohol marketing, advertising and sponsorship.
France has now adopted a strategy called "Loi Evin", which is applied to alcohol and tobacco. Norway and other European countries are following suit. This means alcohol promotion through television, radio and cinema advertising is banned. Alcohol sponsorship of cultural events and sport is banned and marketing targeted at young people is explicitly prohibited.
These are the measures that would begin to make a real difference to the heavy-drinking culture in New Zealand, in combination with several other proven strategies. We should raise the price of alcohol in relation to disposable incomes, raise the purchase age, reduce the accessibility of alcohol through reducing hours of sale and number of liquor outlets, increase drink-driving countermeasures and increase treatment opportunities for the 700,000 heavy drinking New Zealand citizens.
If we want a safer and healthier society, in which a significant proportion of the work of police, courts, hospitals and many other taxpayer funded social agencies is not continually being used to pick up the pieces after excessive alcohol use, we must shake off our collective apathy and send a strong signal to the Government that we want effective new policies to control the supply, marketing and sale of alcohol.
* Professor Doug Sellman is director of the National Addiction Centre, Otago University, Christchurch. He will give a talk on alcohol at Wellington Town Hall's Ilott Theatre next Monday, October 19, at 7.30pm.
- The Dominion Post
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