OPINION: Sixty three million dollars spent by the Canterbury health system treating alcohol-related injuries and illness each year.
About 19,000 people admitted to hospital last year with alcohol a partial cause of their problems.
Medical resources streched and diverted from other cases to treat the alcohol-impaired.
Those are alarming facts, reported by The Press yesterday, but they are merely part of the reality of alcohol abuse in the province and New Zealand. Added to them can be the unreported alcohol-implicated cases of personal distress and family unhappiness, the absences from work and lowered productivity, the heightened danger on the roads, the unnecessarily truncated lives. New Zealand, in short, needs to do something to lessen the binge.
That call is spearheaded by the medical profession that picks up the pieces of alcohol abuse, and it speaks for the similarly frontline services of fire and police. They cannot speak as freely as their medical colleagues, yet it is clear they are similarly appalled by the wasted resources they spend attending drink-fuelled cases. But it is the doctors who have become fired by the issue as they follow their obligation to prevent as well as treat.
Professor Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre in Christchurch, is leading the charge with an energy that has caused him to be labelled a wowser. That is testament to his effectiveness and his willingness to take on the alcohol industry and the politicians who regulate it.
The upcoming liquor reform bill has galvanised Sellman and his associates because it is probably a once-in-a-decade chance to bring major changes designed to limit consumption. That the legislation will probably be passed without some of the reformers' most favoured measures, such as a minimum price for alcohol and tighter restrictions on advertising, has added to the energy of the debate.
The result is a hysterical tinge to it that does the issue a disservice. The suggestion that retailers be forced not to discount stock, for example, is an unreasonable breach of their right to trade. It would, in effect, be a tax on the poor and, in its most severe form, would promote the manufacture and sale of backyard hooch.
In opposing such price control, the National Party is accused of being in the hands of the booze barons. No doubt the trade has made its views known vigorously to the Government and it might be a generous donor to political parties' funds, but those in power know the weight of public opinion is what they must take most notice of.
Perhaps New Zealanders are not demonstrating on the streets about the reform bill's provisions because they enjoy their tipple and the competitive prices outlets charge for it. Plainly there is concern about outlets in suburbs, alcopops and the drinking age, but those are getting the attention of Parliament.
That body's decisions about alcohol have been frequently faulty but, over the decades, it has chosen a reasonable course between the wowsers and the imbibers. Today Parliament seems in the mood for tighter controls, which probably reflects public opinion. It does not seem disposed to the belief that it can change New Zealand's drinking culture as radically as advocates such as Sellman want or that moderate drinkers should be penalised.
Improvements, such as fewer alcohol-associated hospital admissions, will result from a change in the nation's attitude, not from draconian legislation.
- The Press