This is how we're drinking

03:47, Oct 28 2012
Night out in Wellington.
Night out in Wellington.

Side-loading, pre-loading, bingeing and an unshakeable core of heavy boozers: that's how New Zealand is drinking.

We drink far less than some countries says the Health Promotion Agency's general manager, Andrew Hearn, but we drink more heavily on the weekend, bringing with it a significant toll of crime, injury, death and strain on emergency services.

As a result, an unusually high number of our road deaths are alcohol-related. Police say one-third of all criminal offences involve drinking and our hospital departments are often overloaded with injured drinkers on weekend nights.

Arthur Gray at the Riccarton Racecourse Bowling Club
Arthur Gray at the Riccarton Racecourse Bowling Club

The next impact - as lately seen by those heavily imbibing Scots - could be a "bow wave" of disease, particularly liver cirrhosis in young drinkers. Hearn says there are various estimates of how much all this collectively costs the nation each year, but every figure is in "the billion-dollar category".

"We have a bingeing culture," says Hearn. "New Zealanders are notable for saving it up for Friday night.

"We are, being fair, part of a worldwide trend, which may even be spreading to the Mediterranean countries whose cafe culture we've tried to emulate."


For police, who are busiest between 3am and 4am on weekend nights, the binge culture has had a major impact. Inspector Andrew Coster, area commander for Auckland's central city, New Zealand's busiest nightlife district, says the city becomes a markedly different place after midnight.

Coster believes round-the- clock licensing has changed drinking patterns. Instead of drinking until pubs closed some now drink for 12 hours, going until public transport starts again at 6am. Often, that drinking is done at home first (pre-loading), or punters will park near clubs and bars and dart out to drink cheaper, pre-bought booze (side- loading) and so become drunker, quicker.

This behaviour has badly affected pubs. Bruce Robertson, chief executive of the Hospitality Association, says a decade ago 40 per cent of alcohol consumption was in licensed premises, but now their share is just 25 per cent. He blames the aggressive price-cutting of supermarkets.

"If people want to drink to get drunk, they do it at home, and any focus on addressing our cultural drinking habits, in terms of binge drinking, has to find a way to address that. We are already tightly controlled and serve in a responsible way and our ability to influence the other 75 per cent is fairly limited."

But it's the pubs and clubs where trouble happens and police have successfully targeted hotspots such as Auckland's Karangahape Rd, worked with licensing teams to target troublesome pubs, and are anticipating new powers to hand out infringement notices for those breaching liquor bans on street drinking.

"I think we had a fairly romantic idea that if we went to 24/7 licensing, we could end up with this sophisticated cafe culture, but we just don't have it," Coster says. "I'm not a sociologist and can't explain why it is we drink the way we do, but New Zealand's drinking culture is far from sophisticated and we need to understand we are not the same as parts of the Mediterranean where drinking is almost always incidental to socialising. Unfortunately, a lot of drinking that goes on is almost an end to itself. There's definitely a question to be asked about how we are drinking and is it OK? And I think it is no."

AS WELL as being more likely to commit crime when drunk, you're more likely to be a victim of late-night assault, sexual assault, or property crime.

At Waikato Hospital, clinical director John Bonning says he's sick of seeing very young drinkers arrive each weekend. On two successive Saturdays last year, he saw 14 very drunk teens admitted.

Bonning says the quickest way to make an impact on our drinking behaviour would be to change the drink-drive limits. Almost a third of our road fatalities are alcohol- related, almost double the rate in the UK (17 per cent).

One advertising campaign that worked, in the early 1990s, bred a generation, now in their 30s, that was strongly against the practice. But older drink-drivers remain and the young continue to figure highly in statistics. Professor Doug Sellman, of the National Addictions Centre, says advertising campaigns don't usually work, which is why the alcohol industry is keen on them. Both Hearn and Sellman say there is a "solid core" of heavy drinkers, estimated at 700,000 Kiwis, who are not changing their behaviour no matter what they are told.

Sellman says there are only five factors that can have a genuine impact on drinking behaviour, particularly on this hard core. These are price, availability, marketing, the drink-drive limit and the purchase age and, as none of those are involved in the Alcohol Reform Bill, he says that legislation will be ineffective because it "contains no reforms at all".

The Reform Bill debate has dismayed Sellman. He argues that public, scientific and legal opinion all support reform, particularly around reducing the drink-drive limit, but the Government has bent to the corporate will of the alcohol industry. But the Hospitality Association is no fan of the bill either. Robertson says it will force small bottle stores to close, while allowing the supermarkets to continue price-slashing and says there's no evidence that reducing availability will reduce consumption. HANZ's suggestions are a minimum drinking age, not purchase age, a new offence of being drunk in public, and a minimum price policy.

Our alcohol consumption pattern varies, says Hearn; a century ago we "drank a hell of a lot" and of late there has been a downturn. However, Sellman says consumption per capita is a crude measure, because it ignores the demographic changes - our ageing population, and the immigration of low-consuming Asian and Pacific people - that should really have signalled a major dip.

Has our relationship with alcohol worsened?

"Everyone knows things have got worse, we just have to open the papers every day," says Sellman, offering up two stats that "chill" him, the 70,000 alcohol-influenced physical and sexual assaults a year, and the up to 3000 babies born annually with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

"If this was any other drug, the prime minister would be on the television saying 'we have to do something about this drug'; instead, we've got the prime minister on telly drinking the drug and saying 'follow me chaps'."


THE SPORT CLUB (by Ashleigh Stewart)

"We used to fill up two or three jugs each before 6 o'clock closing time in our younger days, and then there was quite a bit of after-hours drinking," says Arthur Gray. Fifty years ago, Gray and his mates would stumble out of a bar after the six o'clock swill, but keep drinking at a nearby hotel until the early hours or when police raided.

The 80-year-old still enjoys a casual pint at the week's end at the Riccarton Racecourse Bowling Club, but says the drinking culture has changed - mainly because of the drink-driving laws.

Now Friday nights at this Christchurch club involve a quiet pint or two. "The drink-driving thing has changed the whole structure of drinking really. Our age group is now a bit more sensible about how they drink," he says.

Despite the slow flow of booze, the club is still packed at 4.30pm as the greens close and everyone heads to the bar. The locals say you don't need to "drink yourself senseless and lie in the gutter" to have a good time, but many believe that's lost on today's young.

Dave Vincent was brought up to believe it was important to learn to drink at home with your parents before embracing alcohol in the outside world. He has instilled that view in his own children. "I have a 17 and a 19-year-old, and they both understand alcohol - but their girlfriends will just go and get loaded before they go out," he explains. "How can you expect to go out and have a good night if you're too drunk to stand up?"

Peter Emerins, 81, who emigrated to New Zealand from Holland, puts the blame on television for New Zealand's drinking culture. "The whole New Zealand culture is drink as much as you can in the shortest possible time," he says. "If you look at the programmes on television you see nothing else. It becomes sort of an accepted standard, but it's not at all."

Emerins said there were similarities between the current Christchurch youth drinking culture and the days of old, but these days the punters were younger, the police numbers were higher, and the bars were rowdier. Nowadays the kids are stumbling out of a flat at 6pm on a Friday night, only to continue drinking at a nearby bar until the early hours of the morning, he says. But by 6pm here, most of the crowd are already drifting home, leaving a handful finishing up their jugs.


THE PUB (by Amy Maas)

My chest was still smarting from a lit cigarette being shoved down my top. So when a bouncer at a bar on Auckland's Viaduct warned me the night would be packed with difficult drunks, I was already convinced.

My job was simple: clean empty glasses from the tables and stand by the door, where punters paid a barman $5 cover change and the bouncers controlled who came in, and more importantly, who was kicked out.

Sounded easy. But that was before the 26-year-old birthday girl - who could open her eyes only a fraction - sloshed beer on my shoes and thrust her cigarette at me. Before a man from Northland insisted I kiss him goodnight because "that's what we do in Northland". Before a man emerged with blood gushing down his face.

By 10pm, the pub was packed with eclectic revellers - girls with barely-there dresses inching north of their bottoms, corporate workers clinging on to the high of discounted drinks, and even a guy knocking on 60 wearing a homemade cardigan staring intently at the female customers.

"I can feel it, it's going to be an asshole night," said one bouncer. "[The drunks] say a lot, they do a lot, but all we say is goodbye. If they're intoxicated, they're out. We're really strict on that because of the police."

He's not joking. A woman in business attire is the first to get the heave-ho followed quickly by 20-somethings brave on tequila and middle-aged women who've overdone it on the wine. But there's always room for more and by 11.30pm tables are removed to make more space. "You'll see, this place is going to pack out." It did. Over the next three hours, the empties pile up under the pressure of plastic being exchanged for liquor.

Clearing glasses through a packed crowd is a circus contortionist's act. The more experienced bar folk juggle 10 on each trip to the kitchens. Fearing the heaving mass will cause me to cut my hands to ribbons, I manage only three at a time.

"To me, it's no different being on this side of the bar or that side of the bar," says a barman during a quick breather. "You can have fun with the people you work with or with the people who are here to drink."

There's fun all right. Just ask the lady whose breasts were massaged to the sound of Livin' On a Prayer by a man she'd met only hours before. Half an hour into the display, they are asked to "cool it" as hands move south.

"You should have been here the other night," observes a bouncer. "I kicked out a couple after I saw a girl on her knees in front of a guy. She'd just met him. That was probably more embarrassing for them than for me."

There's a temporary lull at 3am, but here, it seems "it's quiet . . . for like two minutes".

They're right. Just three minutes later, there's a man with blood pouring from his head. No- one knows what happened, claim the bouncers, as they pour glasses of water over his red hands. Reality, and the lights, are abruptly switched on at 5am. But it pays to remember, "this place is crazy, you never know what's going to happen".


THE BOTTLE STORE (by Ian Steward)

In a windowless concrete bunker in Mangere, South Auckland, where a walk-in beer chiller takes up a third of the room, Cody's are king.

The pre-mix bourbon and colas are massively popular. The cans are small, like a can of V, but you get a dozen for $20. Their other attractive feature is their alcohol content - they come in 5, 8, and 10 per cent varieties, of which the 8 per cent seemed to be the most favoured.

Two women who declined to be interviewed ("I don't want my Nana thinking I'm alcoholic") nevertheless are happy to hold forth on the popularity of Cody's. "It gets you wasted fast," one says. "The first one is a bit . . . (she makes a face) . . . but after that they go down easy."

The other woman has a medical reason for drinking them - compared to, say, Woodstock, they don't give you heartburn. "The 5 per cent Cody's give you heartburn, the 8 per cent ones don't," she says.

A young guy called Ace comes in and leaves with a box of Cody's tucked under one arm.

Shop attendant Dave Charlie said Cody's is their number one seller and Flame - the high alcohol, low cost beer - is their number one beer. He spends most of his night loading Cody's into the chiller or splitting the boxes from 18 packs down into dozens.

Early on, the after-work crowd dribble in, mostly clad in fluoro vests from roadworking or construction jobs. John Tongia is buying drinks for his brothers. "There's five of us. Four of us drink together - the other one still goes to church," he says with a broad grin. The brothers get together most weekend nights. They're league supporters but they'll watch the rugby at a push.

It's a cold night and there's no sport on so it's steady but slow. The clientele gets slightly younger as the night goes on but everyone remains polite.

Charlie seems to know almost everyone who comes in and shakes hands with most. It's this camaraderie that helped Charlie when the store was robbed a few months ago. A couple of guys came in with a piece of wood and Charlie's first instinct was to leap across the counter and belt the guy. He sustained a gashed head when one of the would-be thieves threw a bottle at him but he managed to drive them off.

After the attempted robbery, Charlie had customers - many of them large Polynesian men - offering protection and to "sort the guy out". Despite being in what many would think of as a "rough" area, the bottle store sees little trouble.

It seems Charlie is on handshake terms with half the customers and, because it's a local scene, everyone knows who's old enough and who's not.

Occasionally a drunk person comes in to buy liquor but the staff simply turn them away. The only person who has obviously had a drink before he comes in is a middle-aged Pacific Island man who was mid-party at about 10pm. "I invited 10 people but 50 came," he says. He buys 24 cans of Woodstock and two bottles of $11 pinot noir. He asks for two bottles of chardonnay as well but it turns out what he wants is two bottles of Chardon.

After a night in these supposed badlands, it's ironic the only problem area I see is back in genteel Mt Eden, where two police cars are mounted on the footpath outside the Eden Liquor store, which has been held up at knifepoint.


THE RSA (by Tony Wall)

The Mt Maunganui RSA is packed by 6pm, not so much with the after-work crowd, because most people seem to be past working age, but with retired folk enjoying a Friday evening tipple.

The restaurant is busy, while others play snooker or pool, try their hand at the pokies or place a bet at the TAB. There's a real buzz about the place, but it's the pleasant murmur of conversation rather than the yahooing associated with bars and nightclubs.

At one table, Jeanette Elliott and her husband, Bert Swindell (she didn't take his name because she's an accountant, and it was too close to swindle), are enjoying a pre-dinner drink with friends Murray and Marion Crowther, who are visiting from Auckland.

The Crowthers are drinking brandy and lemonade, Jeannette's having a white wine and Bert's on beer.

Jeanette, 71, says she didn't touch alcohol until she was 35 - "broadly speaking, in that era respectable women didn't drink" - but now typically has around four wines in a session. She drinks at home most nights, but makes sure she has one alcohol-free night a week, and that's Sunday.

Bert, an Australian, still remembers the six o'clock swill, lining up many drinks and downing them before everyone was kicked out at 6.20pm.

Murray, a butcher, and Marion used to live in Waiouru, married when very young and had five kids in five years. "We couldn't afford to drink," Marion says. "We were too busy making babies."

Murray, 75, says he's not much of a drinker, but then lets it slip that he makes his own spirits, which he gives to friends. One 84-year-old lady takes a 10-litre bucket of pure spirits, adding her own flavouring, four times a year.

All the friends reckon the trouble with the way young people are drinking today is that they have too much money. In their day they couldn't afford it. They love the RSA because it's a civilised way to drink.

"We come to places like this because you're not going to get your head bashed in," says Murray.

Over at the snooker tables, Lyndon, who wouldn't give his last name, is playing against a mate. He's drinking a light spirit tonight but usually has a couple of beers over a few hours. "It's not a swill culture down here." Lyndon says if he has too many, he'll leave his car and take the $2 courtesy bus. "There's no way I'm drink-driving."

At 9pm, the restaurant has closed but there's still a good crowd in the main bar area and a band is setting up as someone gets on the PA and asks for silence for The Ode. Everyone bows their heads and faces the remembrance wall, The Ode is recited, and everyone says proudly "we will remember them". There's no sign of drunkenness - this is how alcohol should be enjoyed.


THE CLUB (by Kelsy Fletcher)

There's blood and vomit when the sun sets in central Hamilton. And when the city's underground community gather for a head- banging heavy metal concert you can be sure of broken bones too.

At Altitude Bar, the crowd rages to the opening acts before West Aucklanders 8 Foot Sativa reach the stage.

The hate-screaming gets the blood pumping fast and it's quickly apparent that the crowd get a buzz from fighting.

It's impossible to avoid and moshpit injuries are mandatory. One scuffle hits the ground, with one man sustaining a broken nose and teeth and another complaining of a broken hand.

He says he won't be going to hospital: "A and E is for pussies," he slurs, a fantastic nail through his eyebrow and giant mohawk atop his head. "I may have hit a f...... forehead and the f...... floor, but it's not important. Let's think about it tomorrow . . ."

The man with the broken nose emerges later with a grin on his face.

By midnight, the city is empty of diners and drunken revellers have taken over the streets.

Four shirtless men pub-crawl down Hood St, covered in paint and an assortment of emporium junk. At a bus stop, a group of girls sit with their heads between their knees, trying not to vomit. And the clubs are still stamping entry and serving drinks.

By 1am, a heavily intoxicated 8 Foot Sativa fan is being rehydrated by her friend.

But as soon as her well- meaning mate turns her back, more alcohol is poured down her throat.

The concert ends at 2am, but the alcohol continues to flow freely.

But the combination of a quiet night, and those who have turned out very drunk, prove too much for Hamilton's 3am curfew. Most bars - except Altitude - have fewer than 10 people stumbling around the dance floors.

A bouncer blames it on more "very drunk people" than usual.

The mounds of vomit on the pavement and the circling police vans prove his point.


THE PARTY STRIP (by Sam Boyer)

Stumbling down Wellington's Courtenay Place, a young man grapples one of his companions to the ground.

Two more friends pile on top and they're laughing, cursing and writhing. They eventually stagger to their feet, abusing and barging each another until one of them falls hard against the frosted window of the Mermaids strip club.

As his mates laugh the man rises unsteadily, rubbing his hip.

It's not yet midnight. "Our plan was to try and get through every bar in town," says one of them, 25-year-old Matt Crosbie. "I don't think it'll happen - but we're giving it our best shot."

The Southland truck driver is in town for just one night and is spending it drinking with three 18-year-olds from Taranaki. They'd met at a hostel that day and had been on it since 4.30pm, pre-loading on "pre-mixes, Tuis and Steinies" before they hit town.

Though heavily intoxicated, the foursome swore they weren't yet done for the night - before lurching away to try to complete the night's plan.

The four young men aren't alone in their aspiration for drunkenness - this Friday night, it seemed to be everyone's ambition.

Earlier, about 9.30pm, 45-year-old documentary film-maker Jeff stood swaying at the bar at The Malthouse.

He ordered a beer, then quickly topped that with a round of bourbon shots for himself, the bartender and the nearest stranger. Trying to pay, he spilled cash on the floor and the bar, unable to count out the correct change for the round.

He had been drinking since knock- off at 5pm and had drunk at least eight pints, he said. Plus the shots. "It's obviously a drinking culture. It's more a part of us than it has ever been, and it has got the same hold over us," he slurred.

"I think people are drinking too early and they're drinking too much. And they're drinking beyond what is healthy."

Not everyone enjoying a drink on Friday after work was out to get legless, but many who remained in town past about 8pm seemed open to that outcome.

Earlier still, at 6pm, design accounts manager Frankie Rouse, 34, and designer Tim Newport, 29, had begun the evening by enjoying some "quiet" after-work drinks on the deck of the Green Man pub - but the pair admitted they didn't know where the alcohol would take them.

Amid clinking glasses, raised voices and too-loud music, the two professionals explained the passage of Friday drinks.

"It can either be an early one, maybe 9.30pm and then go home; or maybe like 2.30am," Rouse said. "I'd have four drinks here and then head out elsewhere. It's a wind-down. After 60-plus hours a week, you can have a big night and not have to worry about the next day at work. "

Importantly, she explained, apparently speaking for much of the population, Friday drinking was something to look forward to.

"One of us will send a text that says: THIRSTY?

"And then there's the reply that says: HELL YEAH!"



"If they are drunk and obnoxious, the nurses are pretty hard on them," says John Bonning, clinical director at Waikato Hospital, the country's third biggest emergency department. "And if they vomit everywhere, they make them clean it up."

Drunks with genuine injuries are treated, of course, but there's a hard line on them disrupting other patient's care, particularly the elderly and the young, the core ED customers. "If we weren't full of these drunk people with essentially self-inflicted injuries, we would be able to do a lot more," says Bonning, who stresses he isn't a wowser. "We're not teetotal: but we drink responsibly. We don't fall over, get in a car, or get into a fight. Pretty simple really, isn't it?"

So triage nurse Allan Martinez has a system: Sleepy drunks go in the ambulance bay, awake drunks sit in the waiting room where he watches them, the drunk and volatile are sedated and go to the resuscitation room. The aim is to preserve the beds inside for actual emergencies. Those who are admitted are given fluids, anti-emetics (to stop them vomiting), breakfast, coffee, and sometimes even a lift home with a volunteer.

"Back home, if someone was abusive, I would be the same back," says Martinez, who came here from the Philippines three years ago. "Here, you can't do it, I would lose my licence. It is hard to take, but the longer you do triage, the more experience you get in how to handle it."

Sometimes, he says, people arrive the next day, sober and contrite, to apologise. He tells them to tell their mates to behave better if they're in the same situation, "to respect us, and we will respect you back". A colleague mutters: "That's debatable."

Nurse Vi Taha says: "I've got grandchildren and great grandchildren and I don't expect them to speak to me like that. A lot of kids these days don't respect their elders."

It's an unusually quiet night here: an allergic reaction, an overdose, someone who swallowed a pin after tripping over their cat. The state-of-the-art re- sus rooms remain empty. So at 1.30am, after more than 13 hours at work, Bonning heads home. Everyone says I should have been here yesterday, when a man with a tomahawk had attacked three others (all had been drinking) and there was "carnage".

But Martinez is reassuring: "They will come." And at 2am, they do. An older, dishevelled man is admitted. He had a drunken argument with a mate, who knocked him out, then apparently tried to cut off his thumb while he was unconscious. He'll need plastic surgery, but has self-anaesthetised so successfully he feels no pain, bar a yearning for a cigarette.

"I'm not a drunken fighter," the next visitor says, rather embarrassed. She has puncture wounds in her head and back after being struck with a stiletto heel while trying to break up a fight.

A tattooed boy turns up, shirtless, covered in blood. "I got in a fight," he tells Martinez, rather unnecessarily. "Looks like you did," says Martinez. His mate smashed his head into the ground and has broken his nose.

A girl emerges from an ambulance in tears, clutching her hand, which is quickly splinted. Has she broken it, I ask the ambo? "Don't know, haven't got my X-ray specs on tonight," she says scornfully. It's quickly diagnosed that she has: punching a wall during an argument with her parents. A few seats away, the shirtless boy is apparently asleep, head in hands.

Amid all this, a young girl in a pale green dress who had arrived complaining of feeling cold after a night's drinking is summarily discharged on doctor's orders with instructions to go home, put more clothes on, and maybe drink less next time. She trails out, surrounded by her friends. "Girls are worse: they bring their audience," one nurse observes. The nurses all have stories: the man who tried feeding his rottweiler using his mouth; the teen who drank 16 Cody's and needed six strong men to subdue him.

A second wave will arrive at midday, says senior nurse Karen Arnold, when people wake up with no memory but cuts, fractures and broken noses.

The ambulance drivers phone ahead when they have a rowdy drunk aboard and security guard Bazil Couche will be waiting. "You are mentally prepared for anything . . . if they come out thrashing, we are hands-on immediately." His record is four guards and two ambulance staff to subdue one patient. Last night he spent six hours on "static watch", guarding one of the tomahawk victims inside his cubicle.

Couche left his native South Africa with bullet and knife scars for a safer life here. "I am stunned at the drink culture here," he says. "How many young people lose it. It's a whole other world. In this job, you see the hard side of life - what the average joe won't experience."



The Town Hall clock striking 11pm is shrill above the quiet hum of drinkers at pavement bar tables in Dunedin's Octagon - and there are few scarfies among them.

There is an eerie sense of temperance, though not complete abstinence, but the stark absence of the boozing student culture is obvious. Is it the result of liquor bans, restrictions on drinking at student halls, the closing down of student watering holes the Bowler and the Gardies, and government alcohol reforms?

No. We are told by security guards standing idle outside bars that scarfies don't go drinking Friday nights. Besides, it's exam time. Apparently, students do their drinking Thursday and Saturday nights, leaving class-free Fridays to recover in between. And during exam times, they rarely drink at all.

At a table of 25-pluses enjoying after-work drinks, James says his drinking is far more controlled than when he was a student. "We don't have as much time to drink because of work. And we don't want to spend all our hard-earned cash on booze."

Fourth year students Latisha and Jamie, both 22, arrive at another table outside another bar. "We've been at a pot luck tea and just decided to come to town. We've been drinking at home, but just a bottle of wine between six of us. And that didn't even get finished."

The pair say in their first years at varsity they did the whole drinking thing. But as older students they were learning how to better balance their alcohol intake.

Latisha says there's a definite shift away from the notorious Dunedin student drinking culture. But, "if there was more to do that didn't involve drinking, there would be even less of a booze culture", she says.

The Monkey Bar, in a former Baptist church in Hanover St, can be a thronging magnet for students at this time of night - but tonight it is saintly silent. The manager, Nick, didn't expect that to change; neither did security guard Maso. There would be no queues into the early hours. "That's it at this time of the year," Maso said. "Like, last night was really quiet because of exams."

Binge drinking at parties before hitting town still happens. Scarfies always arrive at The Monkey Bar partly intoxicated. Nick says he is now bound by law to prevent drinking games being played there; so instead they happen before or after going into town. But the scarfie drinking culture is a myth: "It's not really that bad now. It's not as bad as everyone thinks it is. Ninety-nine per cent just come out to have a good time and groups control anyone amongst their own that looks dodgy."

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