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Kiwis are knocking back the alcohol equivalent of 826 bottles of beer a year each - but our binge-drinking culture may not be as bad as feared.
The latest Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health by the World Health Organisation has revealed New Zealanders aged 15 and over drank on average 10.9 litres of pure alcohol a head in 2010, up from 9.6l in 2005, and well above the 6.2l global average.
About 20 per cent of New Zealanders in that category don't drink alcohol, so when they are removed the average amount for every drinker was even higher.
We drank less than our Australian counterparts, who consumed 12.2l each, but even they were well behind the biggest drinkers - in Belarus - who sank 17.5l.
Since it peaked in the 1970s, our drinking declined steadily until the late 1990s, when it started to rise again slightly.
But despite warnings about a binge-drinking culture, the figures show rates of "heavy episodic drinking" are well below many other countries.
Less than 6 per cent of the drinking population admitted to consuming at least six standard drinks on one occasion in the previous month.
In Australia, that number was 13 per cent, while in Canada it was 23.1 per cent. Most European countries were in the 10 per cent-30 per cent range.
National Addiction Centre director Doug Sellman said the data showed the average New Zealander, of 15 years and over, was drinking about 16.5 standard drinks a week.
This suggested more than half were drinking in a risky manner, with health guidelines recommending no more than 15 standard drinks a week for men and 10 for women.
Alcohol consumption per head had increased by 13.5 per cent in New Zealand from 2005 to 2010, despite factors including a recession and an ageing population, he said. "This suggests the heavy drinking culture in New Zealand is being driven by strong factors which can overcome these."
These included "relentless" alcohol marketing, cheap availability, and a drinking age of 18, Sellman said. "As long as we have about 10 New Zealanders dying every week as a result of drunkenness, we deserve the unhealthy reputation of being a wild-south binge-drinking country."
But Brewers' Association external relations director Jenny Cameron said more recent figures from the Ministry of Health showed 85 per cent of those who drank did so lightly to moderately.
While there was no denying that alcohol misuse was a problem, even youth rates of hazardous drinking had dropped in the past 10 years. Drinking rates were well down from the 1970s, and most people did not abuse alcohol, she said.
"I think there's certainly a binge-drinking culture, but it's not the only culture we've got and to classify everyone as doing that . . . it's misleading. We're doing better than we think we are."
Hospitality New Zealand president Adam Cunningham said the figures "took the wind" out of groups who wanted to ban "anything and everything" because of the habits of a minority.
"The extremists will find some way to spin that this is a step in the wrong direction, but despite all the drama, rhetoric and reality TV programmes that sell how bad we are in New Zealand, we are actually doing pretty well."
WHAT ARE WE DRINKING?
At the Park Avenue Food Market in Lower Hutt, Heineken, Ranfurly Draught and Corbans White Label wine are the big sellers.
Owner Nilesh Gandhi, who bought the business 10 years ago, said not a lot had changed in that time. In the first few years there were a handful of people who would wait outside the dairy in the morning to buy alcohol, but they had disappeared and now most customers were regulars who dropped in after work for beer or a bottle of wine.
Gandhi said he probably sold less alcohol now than he used to, but put that down to increased competition from new supermarkets in the area.
Next to the Basin Reserve, Regional Wine and Spirits is a popular stop for a premium purchase. General manager Alastair Morris said wine was the biggest seller, but craft beer had also become popular and single malt whisky was on the rise. People were perhaps buying slightly less and he believed drinking habits had changed. "I think people are drinking less and the statistics back that up . . . it's not as bad as some people would have you think."
- The Dominion Post
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