Last round in sight for NZ booze culture

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 09/08/2014

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Take just one thing away from Senior Sergeant Thomas McIntyre's job and it would be about as fun as watching paint dry.

"Sir Geoffrey Palmer put it best," says the New Plymouth cop.

"He basically said if there was no alcohol in society the job of the police would be very sedate and boring.

"It's a great quote because most of our work involves some sort of alcohol abuse, whether it be someone being victimised, someone committing an offence or someone just doing dumb stuff. Alcohol makes people do dumb things."

It's difficult to disagree. More than 80 per cent of New Zealand adults drink alcohol and while most enjoy their habit and indulge without incident, it would not be surprising if a majority of drinkers had at least one "amusing" story involving booze and their own dumb stuff.

But there is a growing intolerance of finding humour in the dumb stuff and alcohol's role and general acceptability in communities is under intense scrutiny. The latest bout of public soul searching began in 2010 with Palmer's Law Commission report Alcohol In Our Lives - Curbing The Harm. It came with 153 recommendations to stem the damage alcohol is causing.

A direct result of this is councils around New Zealand, Taranaki's included, are working on Local Alcohol Policies that will almost certainly restrict the sale of alcohol and reduce the hours bars and clubs can be open.

Despite this looking like the beginning of the end of New Zealand's liberal experiment with alcohol that has seen purchasing age restrictions dropped to 18, bottle stores proliferate, bar trading hours extended and kept booze prices low, public support for the roll-back is widespread.

"Twenty years ago it wasn't a problem to drive your car, absolutely topped up on booze, home from the pub. As time has gone on that is completely unacceptable. So society has changed its view on what sort of harm they will tolerate from alcohol," McIntyre says.

High-profile cases help drive the disillusionment. The death of New Plymouth artist Carmen Rogers, run down by drunk driver Hogan Bolton at the end of an afternoon drinking session in May, one of the most notable. Three drunk Southland basketballers viciously assaulting security staff at Crowded House bar just weeks later another high-profile example of idiotic alcohol fuelled crime.

But that really is the tip of the iceberg. Alcohol soaks up 18 per cent of the national police budget. It's a factor in one third of violent crime, a quarter of traffic offences, and 20 per cent of vehicle crashes. Take alcohol out of the equation and it is likely these incidents would disappear.

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"If you want to do a little case study, the Okato bar closed down a few years ago and since that time the number of alcohol-related incidents in Okato have dropped significantly to almost non existent," McIntyre says.

"But then you have a supermarket opening in the southern part of New Plymouth and the incidents of alcohol harm have increased significantly.

"So there is a direct correlation between alcohol being readily available and the issues in and around that specific area."

Taranaki District Health Board medical officer of health Jonathan Jarman has another area specific example of harm.

"South Taranaki has both the highest overall density of alcohol outlets and also the highest rate of alcohol-related hospital discharges," he says.

Those under 18 years of age are in trouble too, he says, often suffering harm when friends and siblings supply them with booze. There is no doubt reducing the purchasing age from 20 to 18 in 1999 has increased the availability of alcohol to teenagers and added to the current worry about alcohol and a culture in which binge drinking is both accepted and, in certain social settings, expected.

Studies show younger people are more likely to abuse alcohol than older people and, as McIntyre says, it's now easier for them to get. Most 16-year-olds know someone who is 18. Far fewer know someone who is 20.

Dr Neville Robertson of Waikato University's Psychology Department sees the age drop, combined with alarm over the perceived proliferation of low-priced liquor outlets as reasons public opinion is clambering for change.

"It's not a moral panic. That term tends to be used where there is an outrage when what is being raged against is relatively innocuous. But it is really clear here. Alcohol-related harm is a huge sum of money compared to the income derived from taxation and the likes on those products," he says.

How huge is really only speculation. A 2009 Berl study of 2005/2006 data using methodology endorsed by the World Health Organisation estimated harmful alcohol abuse cost the country $4.9 billion a year, or $1100 per man, woman and child. Other estimates have been as low as $735 million to as high as $16b.

It is unlikely the harm can ever be reduced to zero, Robertson says.

"It is a dangerous and addictive substance. It is always likely some people are going to have real problems with it. Even country's which have reputations for having civilised drinking habits, and France is often seen as that case, you don't have to go far to find some examples of really problematic things happening in so-called civilised drinking cultures.

Massey University History Professor Peter Lineham says New Zealand has a long history of trying to "deal" with the demon drink. Close to a century ago the country came within a whisker of voting in prohibition. For 60 years bars closed at 6pm and until 1987 every general election was also a referendum on whether voters wanted their district to allow the sale of alcohol. None of those measures solved the country's alcohol issues but, although there are blips, alcohol consumption is trending down.

"I doubt if we can approach the issue calmly because too many of us are caught up in it. We think that is my child that is drunk, that is me that could be killed by the drunk person driving the car. So it is too much a personal issue," he says. "What happens is generally the panic subsides. Usually there is no great behaviour change and then we become preoccupied by another panic."

Deep social problems are unlikely to be amenable to simple solutions and there are real limits to what legislation can achieve, he says.

"What may work are subtle changes. Price manipulations combined with alternative sociability options that do not include drinking.

" With cigarettes and tobacco you can see it was a pricing mechanism done gradually, along with general health concerns," Lineham says. "And behaviours slowly changed."

- Taranaki Daily News

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