The 'wowser' leading the charge for alcohol reform

Christchurch's Doug Sellman is leading the campaign to bring in tougher booze legislation - critical he says to changing New Zealand's heavy drinking culture. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

Wowser. An ugly word, that. And an ugly accusation.

You can track its origin to the end of the 19th century, across the ditch. A theory that it was an acronym of an Australian temperance slogan, "We Only Want Social Evils Remedied", seems fanciful, but those are its associations. It had the taint of piousness, self-righteousness and interference.

In short, 'wowser' suggested Christian women and other busybodies who wanted to get between a man and his drink. And not just drinking but many forms of pleasure. When Australian artist Norman Lindsay was attacked over his nude paintings in the 1930s, he said, "I am sick and tired of this wowseristic country". To this day, Lindsay's authorised online biography has "irate wowsers" in North America burning his paintings.

Closer to home and in our time, Doug Sellman has had "wowser" thrown at him a few times over the years. Along with other, less polite words. All because he has talked back to the alcohol industry.

"Unfortunately we have a lot of black and white thinking in New Zealand," Sellman explains. "Actually, not only New Zealand - it's probably a human liability."

It comes with the territory, of course. In the past, when Sellman has commented on 'the relative lack of harm from certain other drugs', such as cannabis, he has been accused of being "overly liberal and a closet pothead". But when he and his colleagues at the National Addiction Centre talk about the relative risks of alcohol - "carcinogenic, neurotoxic, aggressigenic and a number of other properties the alcohol industry keeps very quiet about" - and about how "the excessive commercialism" of the alcohol industry drives our heavy drinking culture, other insinuations follow.

What kind of insinuations? Besides wowser, he gets neo- prohibitionist, activist, extremist, even lunatic. Sometimes these labels come from ordinary commentators and writers of letters to newspapers. Sometimes they come from representatives of the alcohol industry. And sometimes they come from Government MPs.

He remembers that, only several months ago, Prime Minister John Key "made personal comments on television implying I was a prohibitionist". And he recalls that these comments "curiously mimicked very similar comments made by National MP Simon Bridges on the radio several months earlier".

Some have sounded a little more accommodating. When submissions on the Alcohol Reform Bill closed last year, former Justice Minister Simon Power said that "our own statistics show that alcohol is estimated to contribute to 1000 deaths a year, and is a major driver of crime, being implicated in 30 per cent of all police recorded offences, 34 per cent of recorded family violence, and 50 per cent of all homicides".

"These numbers cannot be ignored".

Sellman has voiced even more startling numbers. That there are 700,000 heavy drinkers in New Zealand and that alcohol contributes to 70,000 physical and sexual assaults every year.

Sellman has been director of the National Addiction Centre since 1996. The centre is attached to the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Otago's Christchurch campus and was set up after a national tender process by the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC).

What kind of addictions are we talking about? The initial focus was alcohol but "this has broadened to include other drugs, especially opioids, cannabis and nicotine". More recently, the focus has broadened even further to take in food addiction.

But his estimate is that alcohol still occupies between 50 and 60 per cent of the overall work of the National Addiction Centre. His own PhD research, completed in 1997, was on the topic of alcoholic relapse.

Besides the university's teaching programmes and his own clinical work, since 1994 Sellman has been consultant to the alcohol and drug stream of the Youth Specialty Service in Christchurch, a specialist mental health service for people aged 13 to 18.

While Sellman wants to stay on the serious issues and away from the personal, there is some levity in his online biography: "He is an enthusiastic member of the Harewood Golf Course and an active opponent of dieting, gym attendance and declaring war on anything".

If there is an alcohol war in New Zealand at the moment, the battleground is the Alcohol Reform Bill.

The bill is expected to have its third and final reading in Parliament this month. Sellman feels that it already falls far short of he and his colleagues' expectations. They saw the Law Commission's 2010 review of liquor laws as "the most comprehensive, evidence-based and widely consultative review of alcohol in New Zealand's history". Yet the Government has chosen to ignore key Law Commission recommendations designed to change "New Zealand's heavy drinking culture" - measures related to pricing, marketing and trading hours and raising the purchase age to 20 years.

The process of alcohol review that has unfolded since 2009 was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, Sellman says. And he sees bold legislation as a vital part of changing Kiwi heavy drinking culture, despite what the Government might say. Look at the impact that legislation has had on smoking culture.

So chalk it up as a lost opportunity. For Sellman, the only real hope left with "the weak Alcohol Reform Bill" is that Supplementary Order Papers will be incorporated at the last reading.

There are two. National MP Tim Macindoe has one to raise the purchase age of alcohol for both on and off-licence premises to 20 years, in line with the Law Commission's original recommendation. Yet it is more likely that the views of Justice Minister Judith Collins will prevail: she is on record as favouring an age split in which 18-year-olds can drink in pubs but you must be over 20 to buy from bottle stores and supermarkets.

More important, from Sellman's perspective, is the Maori Party's Supplementary Order Paper, with what he calls "four excellent aspects of reform". These are a minimum price per standard drink, set by the Health Minister, the abolition of alcohol advertising and sponsorship, a sinking lid on liquor outlets and more restrictive trading hours.

If these are not incorporated, he expects that the alcohol industry will breathe "a great sigh of relief, because they know that for all its appearance of being an Alcohol Reform Bill and being talked up by Government ministers and the Prime Minister, it is going to do hardly anything to the heavy drinking culture in New Zealand".

Meanwhile, 'taxpayers pick up the tab on the cost of the damage from their product, not them [the alcohol industry]", Sellman says.

Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party are all in favour of minimum pricing but last month John Key said he was opposed to it. Key cited Scandinavia, where "alcohol prices were very expensive but it didn't stop people getting wasted".

In turn, Alcohol Action medical spokeswoman Jennie Connor referred to a Canadian study that showed a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol reduced consumption by 16 per cent relative to other drinks. Sellman was also quoted, adding that it was "embarrassing hearing the Prime Minister making unsubstantiated and defensive statements to counter effective alcohol policies", and that "the Prime Minister's statements reek of alcohol industry influence".

? ? ?

In 2009, Doug Sellman told a newspaper that he had spent the past 25 years trying to work out what makes our "Neanderthal Anglo-Saxon binge drinkers" tick. Does he feel he is any closer to working that out?

He doesn't recall the quote, but he says that while alcohol "has been the favourite recreational drug for Anglo-Saxons for aeons . . . the heavy drinking binge culture we are now confronted with is as much the result of the marketing efforts of global alcohol corporations as it is the behavioural pattern of our forebears".

Look at European countries such as Italy and France. Once famous for a more sophisticated drinking culture, they are "now just as worried as New Zealand about their seemingly out-of- control binge drinking youth".

What else has changed in 30 years? For one thing, alcohol marketing has become more powerful and sophisticated. Advances in marketing science come out of academic subjects such as decision-making, statistics and evolutionary psychology as tools to influence behaviour 'in the direction of heavy drinking', he says.

The related field of political lobbying has become so professional that Sellman suspects that those who are targeted, such as MPs, often don't realise they are being lobbied. "They think the lobbyists are just being friendly and helpful, almost mates."

The natural comparison is with doctors who have been taken in by the "attractive guile of pharmaceutical reps".

As such, he sees the industry's personal attacks on him and his colleagues as just another of its rhetorical tricks. The strategy of "attempting to paint people who stand up against the public relations of the alcohol industry as neo-prohibitionists was identified as a deliberate tactic of the industry several decades ago," he says.

It may have been effective in the 1980s and 1990s, but he suspects that the public is now more sceptical, especially following revelations about the tobacco industry's marketing and public relations strategies.

"When money is being threatened people can become quite nasty, even when the threat is coming from public servants with no vested interests except a desire to see health and wellbeing improved for ordinary New Zealanders. We are simply doing our job of assembling the best evidence on this topic of alcohol harm and how best to reduce it in society, and advising the Government and the public about this evidence."

The late Roger Kerr of Business Roundtable fame was another who took on Doug Sellman. Kerr called Sellman's approach to alcohol law nanny state-ism - one of his favourite insults. Kerr was all for individual choice and responsibility.

Looking back at that stoush, Sellman sees the division between individual choice and responsibility and state control of behaviour as "a false dichotomy that gets tediously repeated".

Everyone values and aspires to individual choice and responsibility. But for Sellman the important question is how individual responsibility and making good choices are encouraged and achieved.

He suspects that Kerr and others like him failed to see that human behaviour is very strongly influenced by the external environment.

In relation to responsible choices about alcohol, "the important externals" are marketing, pricing, accessibility, drink driving limits and the legal purchase age.

"When these are strongly biased towards people drinking heavily with low alcohol prices, near saturation alcohol advertising and sponsorship, 24-7 trading hours, allowing people to drive around intoxicated and permitting teenagers to purchase alcohol, there will almost inevitably be a heavy drinking culture," Sellman says.

"What we find interesting about those who make noises about the folly of regulation, using terms like 'nanny state', is that in their next breath they almost invariably talk about the need for people to become more responsible. But they never put up an evidence-based strategy for how to encourage people to become more responsible. There is sometimes a vague suggestion that education campaigns might do it, but the evidence on alcohol education campaigns for changing heavy drinking behaviour is virtually zero."

Sellman doesn't cite them, but recent news reports would seem to support his point about regulation over education. The first nine months of the zero alcohol limit for teenage drivers saw 3091 youths convicted in the nine months after the law change, compared to 6414 in the 12 months before the law change. Police had said they expected offences to increase but the new law seemed to act as a deterrent.

Law enforcement appeared to have the effect that all the education campaigns and television advertising in the world never had.

As wowser and related insults show, alcohol reform is an emotive field where much is at stake - revenue streams included. Sellman wants to emphasise the science.

"It perhaps needs to be stated my colleagues and I are not basing our suggestions for alcohol law reform on our own opinions or life experience," he concludes. "They are based on the best international scientific evidence available at the current time."

The Press