Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A nation grapples with the bottle

(Note: This is an expanded version of a column published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard on October 1. Because of its length it is recommended for readers of above average fitness and stamina. Take warm clothing and leave a note of your departure in the intentions book.)

The Dominion Post recently carried the sad story of a young man, a horticulture student at the Eastern Institution of Technology in Hawke’s Bay, who literally drank himself to death as the result of a drinking competition with his flatmates.

The same morning that story appeared, Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report carried an item about alcohol-related violence in Queenstown. Police statistics show that 97 per cent of the people arrested in the resort town are affected by alcohol and the risk of being assaulted late at night is twice the national average. On licensed premises in Queenstown, the risk rises to nearly six times the national average.

All this is very dismal news to Pollyannas like me who believed that liberalisation of the alcohol laws would usher in an era of enlightened drinking. Things haven’t panned out quite as I hoped – at least, not as far as younger drinkers are concerned.

Let me explain the basis for my misguided optimism.

For generations, New Zealanders had some of the most restrictive licensing and drinking laws in the civilised world, for which we can thank a powerful temperance movement that very nearly succeeded in winning a 1919 referendum on prohibition. But paradoxically these laws were strikingly ineffective in controlling the socially undesirable consequences of drinking.

Their most famous legacy was the institutionalised binge drinking known as the six o’clock swill, when men packed public bars in the hour after knocking off work, guzzling as much vile draught beer as they could in the short time available before reeling into the streets and lurching home to breathe beery fumes over the missus and kids.

Less civilised drinking conditions would be hard to imagine. The six o’clock swill not only encouraged over-indulgence but entrenched a social attitude that drinking alcohol was an activity so wicked it had to be quarantined behind closed doors. Public bars were required to have frosted or opaque windows so that passers-by wouldn’t be corrupted. Here we have the origins of the forbidden fruit syndrome that I argue still curses New Zealanders’ relationship with alcohol.

The first momentous step toward relaxation of the licensing laws was the provision for New Zealand’s first licensed restaurants in 1961. From that time on, incrementally and ultra-cautiously, Parliament continued – always in the face of fierce opposition from the wowsers – to pursue a policy of liberalisation. The introduction of 10 o’clock pub closing in 1967 was followed in 1969 by the reduction of the minimum age of purchase (there has never been a legal “drinking age”, technically speaking) from 21 to 20.

With each step, Parliament was encouraged by the realisation that less repressive drinking laws didn’t create mayhem in the streets after all. But MPs still tended to view the liquor laws as a minefield.

The fact that liquor issues were traditionally decided by a conscience vote didn’t help, since individual MPs were subjected to intense lobbying by liquor and hotel industry interests on one hand and advocates of tight control on the other – a situation hardly conducive to coherent lawmaking. (Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who recently announced a thorough review of the licensing laws, thinks the conscience vote on liquor issues should be abandoned. Associate Minister of Justice Lianne Dalziel, sponsor of a Bill now before Parliament that will partially wind back the licensing law reforms of the past 20 years, agrees.)

That the laws were rife with contradictions and inconsistencies was confirmed by Sir George Laking, chairman of a government working party on liquor legislation, who described them in 1986 as “a jungle of regulatory provisions without any clear or coherent objective”. Nonetheless, ad hoc reform continued.

The restaurant and cafĂ© sector benefited enormously from deregulation – a crucial factor in triggering the dining-out revolution that transformed New Zealand socially in the 1980s. But even as this was happening, alcohol was still capable of inciting panic. I remember writing an editorial for the Nelson Mail in the mid-1980s about the hysteria triggered by a proposal to open a Pizza Hut restaurant. A Pizza Hut restaurant! Concerned Nelsonians – and there’s no one on earth more concerned than a Concerned Nelsonian – were convinced it would lead to mass drunkenness in the streets and probably carnage on the roads and sexual depravity too.

In 1989, Parliament passed the Sale of Liquor Act. Though typically muddled, it allowed wine sales in supermarkets (except on Sundays – a bizarre manifestation of Parliament’s timidity in dealing with liquor issues). The Act also further liberalised opening hours and eased the rules under which minors could enter licensed premises, although MPs stopped short of reducing the drinking age to 18 as recommended by a government working party.

But here’s an interesting thing: contrary to all the predictions of the wowsers who opposed liberalisation, liquor consumption markedly decreased during this period. New Zealanders drank less alcohol per capita in the nine years following the 1989 reforms than in any other comparable period for which reliable data was available. Here, it seemed, was proof that if people were treated as mature adults, rather than as helpless retards who needed protection from the depredations of ruthless liquor barons, they would respond accordingly.

Perhaps emboldened by this realisation, Parliament revisited the issue in 1999 and took care of some unfinished business. It not only axed the ridiculous prohibition on Sunday wine sales in supermarkets but allowed them to sell beer as well. And it lowered the minimum purchase age to 18 (a reform, incidentally, that the police supported, though they seem to have conveniently forgotten that fact now).

I wholeheartedly welcomed all this for the reason that I believed it would finally lay to rest the forbidden fruit syndrome I referred to earlier. This syndrome, I believe, gave alcohol a sort of fugitive mystique that made it irresistible to teenagers, who by nature tend to want whatever they’re told they can’t have.

I believed then, and still want to believe now, that the best way to encourage sensible consumption of alcohol was to treat it as just another everyday consumer product. All the evidence pointed toward that conclusion. The more alcohol was normalised, the more responsibly we drank.

It’s fair to say, however, that the past few years have sorely tested that belief. From 2001, alcohol consumption started to climb again. The increase seems to have been largely driven by spirits and spirit-based drinks – in other words, the “alcopops” or RTDs (for “ready to drink”) that seem so lethally attractive to young women. And with it has come an ugly new social phenomenon: the young female binge drinker.

But it’s not exclusively a female thing. Among young men, the urge to over-indulge in alcohol – something I thought we were well on the way to eradicating – has inexplicably made a comeback. The death of the young Hawke’s Bay horticulture student was tragic evidence of that, as was the recent report of a car that crashed over a cliff in Canterbury, killing a passenger, after the occupants had taken part in a drinking game aptly called the Circle of Death.

Not only are drinking games making a comeback (a South Island Young Farmers’ Club competition charmingly called “Last Man Standing” was cancelled last year only after a public outcry), but the barbaric rite of passage known as the yard glass persists too. In the provincial town where I live, a young man collapsed and died at his 21st birthday celebrations in 2006 after downing a yard glass.

Why parents condone this tradition is an utter mystery to me. It proves nothing other than that if you drink a lot of beer in a very short time, you’ll be violently ill.

Just when society seemed finally to have learned that drinking didn’t have to mean getting drunk, a binge-drinking mindset seems to have taken hold of the young and threatens to negate much of the progress we’ve made.

Who’s to blame, if anyone? This is where it gets tricky. It’s not done to speak ill of the dead, but it’s hard to avoid mention of Michael Erceg, the liquor industry entrepreneur who died in a helicopter crash in 2005. It was Erceg who, having identified young women as a potentially lucrative and undeveloped customer base, hit the market with RTDs and became fabulously wealthy on the proceeds. Mind you, if he hadn’t done it, someone else would.

Other people in the industry are not entirely blameless. For all the talk about promoting restraint, some brewery advertising still perpetuates macho beer-guzzling as a central element in the boorish culture of male mateship. So if there is a legislative backlash against alcohol abuse, greedy and stupid people in the industry will be largely responsible.

Then there’s the old familiar New Zealand tendency to lurch wildly from one extreme to the other. We went from a very tightly regulated regime to one that was so wide open, in terms of trading hours and density of outlets, that it inevitably encouraged excessive consumption by the minority of drinkers who don’t know the meaning of the word “enough”.

Other possible explanations take us into more complex sociological territory. It isn’t preposterous to ask whether the insistent feminist message that “girls can do anything” has been extended to getting legless, just as it appears to have led to an increase in the incidence of female violence. After all, if young men are allowed to drink themselves into a state of insensibility and roll in their own vomit, why should young women be denied the same pleasure?

There’s also the depressing possibility that binge drinking is an Anglo-Saxon curse that afflicts every predominantly white, English-speaking country. It can’t be purely coincidental that both Britain and Australia have similar problems to ours.

Whatever the explanation, the regression is unwelcome. And alongside all the other reasons why it’s unwelcome, such as violence, road accidents and sex attacks, it’s fuelling a virulent new form of wowserism.

The New Wowsers are not like the stern Protestant wowsers of old who believed liquor was the creation of the devil. They do, however, have the same sense of moral superiority and the same urge to control other people’s lives. Many are driven by a loathing of capitalism, which they see as the source of all humanity’s problems.

They lobby tirelessly for tighter controls on alcohol and they are getting political traction, partly because they are firmly embedded in the machinery of government – in the Ministry of Health and in the state-funded quangos and activist lobby groups that whip up moral panic over binge drinking and easy access to alcohol.

Public unease over binge-drinking has created a political setting in which the pendulum seems likely to swing back toward a more restrictive licensing regime. Under the Bill introduced by Dalziel, who takes a very conservative position on liquor issues (she doesn’t like wine and beer being sold in supermarkets), local councils will draw up “local alcohol plans” which licensing authorities will have to take into account in granting licences. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee anti-liquor activists and community busybodies taking control of the consultation process that councils will be required to follow in drawing up these plans.

The New Wowsers would love nothing more than to turn the clock back. But while there is clearly some legislative fine tuning to be done to curb some of the excesses encouraged by the present laws, I believe it would be a mistake – and wholly ineffectual – to raise the so-called “drinking age” back to 20. It would only perpetuate the forbidden fruit syndrome and make it even less likely that we will ever grow out of it.

As discouraging as the current spike in binge drinking is, we shouldn’t be panicked into losing sight of the big picture. Anxiety about binge drinking must not be allowed to obscure the fact that most New Zealanders are drinking in an incomparably more civilised manner than those of earlier generations. We are drinking with meals rather than for drinking’s sake, we are drinking more in mixed company and we are drinking in infinitely more congenial surroundings.

If the wowsers had had their way, none of these advances would have happened. We should be wary of simplistic law changes that would penalise the entire community for the drinking behaviour of a problematical minority and risk trapping New Zealand society in a permanent state of adolescence.


Will de Cleene said...

That hike wasn't as arduous as it looked, but I have worked up a good thirst after doing it. Nice overview too.

Teens have their own rites of passage. One has to be young and stupid before one attains age and wisdom. Even the most hedonistic person eventually tires of vomiting.

Linuxluver said...

I have a feeling the decline in alcohol consumption in the 1990s was due in parts to the heavier penalties for drink driving and also due to mature baby boomers laying off the booze as they had more and older kids and moved into the 40s and 50s. maybe Rogernomics helped too, seeing more people working longer hours with less time to drink.

I didn't drink less because they freed up the booze.....I just drank less because I worked 10+ hours / day instead of 8 and had two young kids.

Correlation wasn't causation.

Bearhunter said...

Interesting thoughts, Karl. I’m not sure that you can lay the “Anglo-Saxon” charge to easily, though given that Ireland has similar (if not worse) levels of “binge-drinking”, despite not having an overtly Anglo-Saxon gene pool. Meanwhile, Canada and the US do not have it to the same extent.
I think you are right that the problem is at least partly down to the attitudes to drinking in this country, which veer form the no-holds-barred to the Calvinist. And that latter attitude is not helped by an overly paternalistic health sector (ALAC etc), which seems to equate more than two beers at a time with rampant bingeing. That’s plainly tripe; when I was growing up a binge lasted at least two days.
I’m also interested in your description of drinking being done away from the public gaze and the effect that has on public perceptions of the propriety of drinking. I was just thinking the same thing the other day when I noticed how isolated from view most pokie rooms are in pubs.

Will de Cleene said...

I blame the weather.

Isn't it funny how the further away from the equator, the more prevalent alcohol is? Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Alaska & New Zealand all like the booze to excess. Meantime, the Mediterranean and Islamic countries prefer either lower or non-existent levels of consumption.

Anonymous said...

This will probably show up as "anonymous" but it's Deborah Coddington here: I couldn't agree with you more about lowering the drinking age. I too thought it would lead to a more civilised drinking behaviour in NZ, but there does seem to be a growing culture of "going out to get trollied". But I think the reasons for this are too complex for this reply. Lack of a guiding philosophy, perhaps? If you talk to people like Tom Claunch, director of Capri rehab clinic in Auckland, who has been a dry alcoholic for nearly 40 years, he's got some interesting scientific research on the genetic make-up of the disease of addiction (which I admit is not the same as binge drinking). The genetic makeup of Maori, Pacific Islanders, native American Indians, and Australian Aborigines means many more of them are predisposed to the disease of addiction, than those of Anglo-Saxon genetic makeup. This is not a racist comment, it is a scientifically proven fact, and if you look at the havoc "white man's firewater" has caused among many of these people, you start to see the truth in it. But binge drinking is at least, usually, and hopefully, a phase that most youngsters grow out of. As Will said, you get tired of vomiting and it's a very bad look when you're middle-aged. Having said that, successive governments have gradually closed all publicly funded residential rehabilitation clinics, ending with the hugely successful Queen Mary at Hanmer, so where do people go for help if they don't have the money to pay for Capri? The State rakes in millions of dollars in alcohol (sin) tax, but as with any other mental health issues, believes if you toss people out in the community and treat them as "normal", they'll survive.