Dying for a drink

20:34, Jan 11 2014

A drunken Kiwi league star goes to jail for bashing a bar patron in Sydney while a young boy is found blotto at a Hamilton skate park. A nation is outraged - but should we be so surprised?

Before we shake our heads in wonder at how anyone could be irresponsible enough to give cans of bourbon and cola to a 9 year old, let's not forget we're all part of a society that has welcomed alcohol with open arms.

Booze touches our lives like no other product. It's cheap and available everywhere, at almost any time of the day or night. It's on our television screens, in our newspapers, and it's at our sports grounds. It's in films and on billboards. It's endorsed by sports stars, celebrities, actors. It is our prime cultural and social lubricant.

Lest anyone accuse me of being a wowser, I enjoy a drink. I have a wine with dinner most nights and a couple of beers after work on a Friday - sometimes more than a couple. I did get blotto occasionally when I was younger, although not when I was nine.

I supported the lowering of the purchase age in 1989, reasoning that someone old enough to marry, drive, vote, and enlist ought to be trusted to buy a drink.

I also thought reforms that widened the availability of alcohol would usher in a new age of a more sophisticated, European attitude towards drinking - with food, in controlled settings, and in moderation.


It turns out I was wrong. More than 20 years on, we still don't have a mature attitude towards alcohol and we're no better at saying "when". While 18 year olds may be old enough to handle alcohol, lowering the purchase age has simply made it more readily available to those even younger, who are not.

And it's hurting us. At least 1000 people a year die from alcohol-related harm. Booze is involved in a third of all fatal road crashes, a third of all criminal offending, and 60 per cent of sexual assaults. According to Alcohol Healthwatch, alcohol-related harm costs the country $5.3 billion every year.

The long-accepted view has been that the vast majority of us drink in moderation, and that the problems are caused by a minor few who spoil it for the rest of us.

That myth was exploded by the Law Commission, which estimated in a comprehensive 2010 review that 20 per cent of the 1.4 million Kiwis who routinely enjoy a drink do so in a "hazardous manner" and that the problem is disproportionately worse among young people, who collectively lose 17,000 years of life every year due to alcohol.

The commission recommended drastic changes to the laws surrounding the supply of liquor, including returning the age limit for purchase at a bottle store back to 20, closing all off-licences at 10pm, and introducing minimum pricing on alcoholic beverages.

After four years of heated debate and a great deal of lobbying by the alcohol industry, the Government passed the Alcohol Reform Bill in December. Convenience stores can no longer sell alcohol, there are more rules around how and where bars can operate and councils get powers to set limits on the sale of booze around schools. There is a greater onus on parents to provide express consent for minors to drink in private.

But the purchase age remains 18. There is no legal drinking age. There are just three hours in every 24 when you can't buy a drink (between the 4am curfew for bars and the 7am opening time for bottle stores). No restrictions were imposed on the sale or availability of child-friendly alcopops. Sponsorship wasn't touched.

Even under the new law, the person or persons who allegedly provided the hapless Hamilton 9 year old with his bourbon and cokes is liable only for a fine not exceeding $2000 - and even then, only if they were not guardians of the child or did not have the permission of one to offer him a drink.

When the new law passed, Justice Minister Judith Collins admitted it was not going to provide all the answers to our national drinking problem. "Obviously people need to change the culture and their own behaviour."

Difficult, when all young people see is their role models endorsing and using alcohol; when liquor companies can sponsor tennis, golf, and rugby tournaments, footy and netball teams teams, book awards, rock concerts, fun runs, sailing regattas, horse racing, and surfing competitions.

The National Addiction Centre estimates liquor companies spend $400,000 a day on advertising and sponsorship. It's ironic that at a time when the tobacco industry has reached virtual pariah status - unable to advertise, sponsor anything, or even display their products in stores - alcohol sponsorship is more ubiquitous than ever.

I accept greater restrictions on the purchase and consumption of alcohol are an imposition on the 80 per cent who do not abuse it. But the consequences of the actions of the other 20 per cent who can't or won't respect alcohol are too enormous, not just for them but for everyone else they affect.

As events of the past week have demonstrated, nothing is going to change until the place of alcohol in sport is undermined and the ability of young people to access booze severely curtailed.

Making the supply of alcohol to a minor a criminal offence punishable by a jail term would be a good start, along with the introduction of a drinking age and a split 18/20 purchase age for on-licence and off-licence premises. I'd also support phasing out all alcohol sponsorship.

Weaning ourselves off our alcoholic culture isn't going to be easy and it isn't going to be quick. But we've got to start somewhere. The hangover just isn't worth it.

Sunday Star Times