Bar opening hours in spotlight as binge-drinkers fill Wellington Hospital

Some health experts are calling for tougher laws to restrict drinking in Wellington's entertainment precinct.
Fairfax NZ

Some health experts are calling for tougher laws to restrict drinking in Wellington's entertainment precinct.

Drunks are once again flooding Wellington Hospital's emergency department, leading some health experts to call for tougher laws to curb binge-drinking in the capital's CBD.

New figures collected by Regional Public Health suggests benefits from pushing back the cut-off time for selling alcohol to 4am has worn off, with binge-drinkers - university students in particular - back to their old habits.

Medical officer of health Stephen Palmer said more rules were needed to reduce the "oversupply" of alcohol in Wellington's entertainment precinct of Courtenay Place, Cuba St and Manners St.

A man walks down Wellington's Courtenay Place with a dozen beer.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

A man walks down Wellington's Courtenay Place with a dozen beer.

"The liquor stores on these three streets are right at the open face of the binge-drinking problem."

Bringing forward the call for last drinks to 2am or 3am was one option that should be looked at again, along with tougher restrictions for off-licences in the central city, he said.

During the past five years, the majority of people being treated for intoxication, alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries at Wellington Hospital's emergency department have been males aged between 18 and 21.

The worst time of the year is February and March, when the hospital deals with about 35 such cases a month.

But this changed in 2014 - just a few months after the 4am cut-off was introduced - with the number dropping to about 25 a month.

New figures now show the switch as temporary and carnage in the emergency department had returned to normal in 2015.  Palmer said this suggested the law change had no long-lasting effect,

This year also saw an "upward swing" in the number of intoxicated males aged between 22 and 25 seeking emergency medical attention in Wellington. The data for females was yet to be analysed.

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The age of the patients and the time of year suggested Orientation Week was a factor, Palmer said.

He had noticed an "interesting dynamic" between the strict alcohol policies in hostels and the propensity for pre-loading and side-loading by students in liquor ban areas in and around the entertainment precinct.

Wellington Hospital emergency specialist Paul Quigley said it was disappointing to see the 4am cut-off had done little to curb binge-drinking, but not surprising.

Increasing the price of alcohol, restricting its sale at off-licences and raising the drinking age were all more effective ways of tackling dangerous drinking, he said.

Fluctuations in the number of intoxicated people turning up at Wellington's emergency department happened all the time. But one positive of the 4am cut-off had been less people arrivingafter a drunken fight, Quigley said.

"We still see plenty of intoxicated people but the fistycuff seems to have dropped off a bit."

Hospitality New Zealand's Wellington branch president Jeremy Smith said cutting the hours of bars would simply encourage people to drink more elsewhere.

And despite Palmer's figure, Deputy Mayor Justin Lester said Wellington City Council had not seen enough to convince them restricting drinking and buying hours would curb dangerous drinking.

"If people want to drink to excess they will. It's about how people drink, not how late they drink." 

Victoria University Students' Association president Rick Zwaan said while there could be a rise in alcohol-related harm during O-Week, the association's had research showing the number of students ending up in the emergency department was declining.

There had also been a change in the drinking culture for many university students, he said. "We saw far fewer first-year students this year with the primary aim of going out and getting wasted."

Crafty crackdown

Wellington's bottle stores are embracing "craft" beer in order to get a liquor licence.

Police and Regional Public Health began experimenting in January with supporting new bottle stores in the CBD if they agree to restrict their operating hours and sell "premium" liquor only.

Since then, four licences have been granted to new bottle stores that agree not to sell the cheap stuff, while another existing bottle store has pegged back its hours and promised to deal only in high-quality booze.

Stephen Palmer, a Wellington region medical officer of health, said another bottle store in Cuba St was being encouraged to go down the same path.

The aim was not to run mainstream beer out of town, but to reduce its availability and "nudge" the public towards drinking smaller amounts of more expensive beer and wine, he said.

Palmer put Tui, Lion Red, DB Draught and Heineken in the mainstream category, while the likes of Tuatara and Moa were more at the craft beer end of the spectrum.

Police and Regional Public Health were now opposing all liquor licence applications for "mainstream" bottle stores, he said.

 - The Dominion Post

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