One in 10 Kiwis now alcoholic

16:00, Oct 26 2013

One in 10 New Zealanders could now be considered "alcoholic" according to new diagnostic criteria - but the majority of those with a drinking problem are unlikely to recognise it because the issue is so common.

The new estimate of 400,000 "alcoholics" in New Zealand - around 10 per cent of our 4.4 million population - was tallied up by Professor Doug Sellman from the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago.

It is significantly higher than the Ministry of Health's 2006 estimate which says 3 to 6 per cent of the population has an alcohol issue.

Sellman's figures are based on the new diagnostic criteria for "alcohol use disorder" recently published in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.

Alcohol use disorder combines two previously separate labels - "alcohol abuse" and "alcohol dependence" - and rates the disorder as mild, moderate or severe.

There are 11 criteria for a diagnosis and you need to meet just two of them to qualify for the diagnosis.


"We know there are about 800,000 heavy drinkers in NZ [based on Ministry of Health figures] and it could very well be higher," Sellman said.

"A majority of heavy drinkers already are likely to meet one of them, the acquired tolerance criterion, so that means they only need one more criterion to get there.

"So I'm suggesting that perhaps about a half of heavy drinkers are likely to have at least one more of the diagnostic criteria such as a recurrent problem associated with heavy drinking, which accounts for the 400,000 figure."

Sellman said two-thirds of those were unlikely to recognise they had a problem.

"People with alcohol problems in New Zealand are no different to people in other countries with an alcohol problem where those countries have a strongly ingrained and normalised heavy drinking culture," he said.

Issues such as alcohol in supermarkets, marketing and the relationship between sport and alcohol contributed to heavy drinking being considered harmless, normal and glamorous, he said.

Vanessa Caldwell, the co-chair of the National Committee of Addiction, said the high prevalence of drinking in New Zealand, particularly binge-drinking, was also a factor in recognition. "When everyone's doing it it's hard to know that you've got a problem," she said.

Caldwell said drinkers also waited a long time to seek help - on average 15 to 16 years - and her organisation was focused on early intervention.

Ross Bell from the Drug Foundation said while there was a constant moral panic about drugs like methamphetamine or "legal highs", alcohol has always been New Zealand's biggest problem.

"Because many of us are drinkers we don't like to acknowledge it's a problematic thing. We always see it as a moral or a personal failing . . . and that's why there's a stigma," he said. And that stigma was a huge barrier to people seeking help.

"We are prepared to wait until that time rather than invest early," Bell said.


Do you suffer alcohol use disorder – how many of these criteria do you meet?

1. Taking alcohol in larger amounts or for longer than you meant to

2. Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but not managing to

3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from alcohol

4. Cravings and urges for alcohol

5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school, because of alcohol

6. Continuing to drink even when it causes problems in relationships

7. Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of alcohol

8. Using alcohol again and again, even when it puts you in danger

9. Continuing to drink even when the you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by alcohol

10. Needing more alcohol to get the effect you want (tolerance)

11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more alcohol

Mild: Two or three symptoms Moderate: four or five symptoms Severe: six or more symptoms

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