Hamilton's culture of intoxication
In the second of a series looking at binge drinking in Hamilton's CBD, the Waikato Times looks at the impact our thirst for alcohol has had over the years.
Drunks fighting, vomiting and staggering around Hamilton's central bar district on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights do not exist in a vacuum.
There's a story that explains how it got to this point and many of those threads are all pulled together in Pleasure, Profit and Pain, a book recently published by the University of Waikato that analyses the role booze plays in New Zealand, as well as the "contemporary culture of intoxication".
Ever since alcohol landed with the first European explorers there have been three forces fighting for dominance: the rights of individual drinkers to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, the rights of society to protect itself from alcohol harm, and the right of the alcohol industry to profit from its sale.
In those early days alcohol was freely available and intoxication was common until the temperance movement was formed. For 50 years it fought for the rights of society to be protected from alcohol-related harm. But from the mid-1900s the constraints, both in law and culture, eased. The pinnacle of liberalisation arrived with the 1989 Sale of Liquor Act and its 1999 amendments. The Law Commission described this period as the "unbridled commersialisation of alcohol".
Nationally, the number of off-licence premises rose from 1600 in the early 1990s to more than 4000 by the 2010s.
Commercial alcohol interests are now hugely powerful; its production, sale, supply and promotion is estimated to be worth $4-5 billion.
An estimated 2.8 million or 80 per cent of New Zealanders drink. Latest research from the Ministry of Health shows 530,000 Kiwis, or one in five, have a hazardous drinking pattern. In other words, drinking behaviour that carries a high risk of harming a drinker's physical and mental health and creating a harmful social effect.
According to the book's authors, the big difference in cities such as Hamilton since the 2000s is the culture of intoxication.
It is now acceptable for both men and woman to be drunk; drinkers now intend to reach intoxication and they're doing it because it's viewed as "desirable, fun and synonymous with having a good time".
It's in stark contrast to the age old story of people drinking to excess to escape the reality of life's ills.
The imbalance of price rises between on and off-licences has also encouraged pre-loading. Since 1999 there has been an almost 50 per cent price increase at bars compared to a 20 per cent rise for off-licences. This "has encouraged a trend of drinkers pre-loading with cheaper off-licence alcohol in a residential or car park setting prior to arriving at an on-licensed bar".
This throws up a range of problems for the central city: taxi drivers have to transport drunks to town; bouncers have to judge a punter's level of intoxication before admitting them; bar managers are then responsible for the behaviour of individuals who may have consumed little alcohol within their premises.
The Hospitality Association forcefully argued their case in a submission to the Select Committee in 2011: "Supermarkets are driving binge drinking with aggressive pricing and should be banned from selling alcohol . . . [and that] unless Parliament addresses the issue of the sale of alcohol from supermarkets . . . the worst features of NZ's alcohol consumption will continue unabated".
The authors say the financial cost of alcohol misuse on our society is "immense" and is estimated to be from $4-5 billion per year.
The rules of the game were tightened somewhat when the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 came in. Among other restrictions, it empowered councils to set up their own Local Alcohol Policies. But Hamilton's has been shelved in the face of twenty councils who face appeals to their LAP by the country's two big supermarket chains and bottle store franchises.
The appeals raise fundamental issues that focus, in part, on off-licence trading hours and location restrictions.
As the city council's deliberations resume, those three factors - pleasure, profit, pain - will fight it out again.
The "formidable" alcohol lobby will likely emphasise the rights of the industry and individual drinkers. It is "predictable" that they will "continue to contextualise alcohol as an ordinary commodity [as opposed to a drug] and that the industry deserves the same commercial rights as other commodity providers".
When misuse comes up, the industry will likely minimise it and oppose population-based strategies arguing that it "is unfair for the majority . . . to be penalised for the faults of a few".
"The alcohol industry is also likely to periodically label those who oppose them as joyless wowsers, intent on removing the individual's right to drink."
The public health lobby is likely to take the opposite stance.
"Inherent within public health advocacy is the conviction that while it is entirely acceptable for individuals to enjoy the pleasures of moderate alcohol consumption, it is not acceptable for it to inflict considerable pain on wider society, and it certainly should not be tolerated simply because commercial interests wish to continue to profit form the sale of a liquid drug that is not at all ordinary."