(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 9.)
I SEE Jim Anderton has added his voice to the increasingly shrill chorus of doom over alcohol abuse.
In a recent statement supporting calls for a sweeping overhaul of the liquor laws, Mr Anderton claimed that 25 percent of New Zealanders were heavy drinkers. “That’s equal to the combined population of both Wellington and Christchurch.”
I assume he borrowed this alarmist claim from the crusading anti-liquor academic Professor Doug Sellman, who recently wrote in a highly emotive newspaper article that New Zealand had 700,000 heavy drinkers – the basis for his comparison with the populations of Wellington and Christchurch, which Mr Anderton has now picked up.
But hang on. There are a couple of problems here.
For a start, Professor Sellman’s article didn’t define that crucial term “heavy drinker”. Neither did it explain how he arrived at a figure of 700,000.
When I contacted him for clarification he explained that a heavy drinker, in World Health Organisation terms, is someone who drinks more than 21 standard drinks per week or more than six per occasion. As for the number of heavy drinkers, he said that 25 percent of New Zealand drinkers aged over 16 scored 8+ on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, which I gather is some sort of international standard for determining hazardous drinking.
Twenty-one standard drinks a week is an average of three a day. Using that definition, many New Zealanders certainly would be classified as heavy boozers. But I wonder how reliable that measurement is.
“Experts” in health bureaucracies such as the WHO tend to take a disapproving approach to alcohol consumption and it’s possible an element of overkill – call it scaremongering, if you like – is built into their criteria.
I spent some time searching the WHO website and could find no clinical basis for the assertion that 21 drinks a week make someone a heavy drinker. In fact the definitions I found for “heavy drinker” were frustratingly vague.
For instance: “Heavy drinking is a pattern of drinking that exceeds some standard of moderate drinking or – more equivocally – social drinking. Heavy drinking is often defined in terms of exceeding a certain daily volume (e.g. three drinks a day) or quantity per occasion (e.g. five drinks on an occasion, at least once a week), or daily drinking.” Interestingly, this differs slightly from the definition Professor Sellman gave me.
Elsewhere in the same report, the WHO defines a relatively heavy drinker as one who might have one drink after work on a Monday, two with dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, none on Wednesday, eight at a party on Friday night, two on Saturday afternoon and four with friends on Saturday night, and none on Sunday – an average of three drinks a day.
This is all very imprecise and leaves us little the wiser.
In any case, the term “heavy drinker” seems highly subjective. I have an average of three drinks a day – one before dinner and two during the meal.
I have followed this drinking pattern for years and don’t, to my knowledge, suffer any alcohol-related illness. I am fit and active. I have never had a serious accident or been pulled up for driving while drunk (though I have been breath-tested at checkpoints on many occasions), have never been convicted of bashing anyone in an alcohol-fuelled rage and can’t remember when I last threw up as a result of excessive alcohol consumption, except that it was a very, very long time ago.
My children, all of them long since grown up, have never seen me drunk. Yet it seems I am classified by the WHO as a heavy drinker. You have to wonder whether these international standards have been set at a level calculated to frighten responsible drinkers into thinking they’re hopeless sots.
It’s worth recalling that the “safe” drinking limit that guided official British alcohol policy for 20 years – 21 standard drinks a week for men, 14 for women – turned out to have been a figure that wasn’t based on any objective data, but was “plucked out of the air” by a Royal College of Physicians working party that didn’t really have a clue how much alcohol was “safe” but felt compelled to come up with guidelines. It’s possible the WHO notion of “heavy drinkers” was arrived at in a similarly arbitrary fashion.
But the problems don’t end there, because some of the alarmists’ figures don’t add up. If there are really 700,000 heavy drinkers in New Zealand, which I doubt, then they represent less than 17 percent of the population, or one person in six. So how does that square with the much more alarming 25 percent figure cited by Professor Sellman in an email to me, and also quoted by Mr Anderton?
I can’t help suspecting that in the righteous cause of wowserism, any figure can be bandied about with impunity. But whether it’s 17 percent of the population or 25 percent, most New Zealanders know from their own experience and observation that these figures are alarmist.
They know that New Zealanders, by and large, are much more civilised drinkers than they were a generation ago.
We are drinking more wine and less beer, we are drinking more in mixed company, we are drinking more often as an accompaniment to food and we are drinking in infinitely more congenial surroundings. In their eagerness to turn the clock back, the anti-liquor lobbyists choose to disregard these positive developments, preferring to focus on a troublesome minority of binge drinkers to the exclusion of everything else.
They are aided by politicians like Mr Anderton, who has a socialist’s fondness for simplistic, heavy-handed solutions to complex social issues (as he demonstrated with his ill-advised "sherry tax" in 2003).
There is an important debate to be had about alcohol consumption. Binge drinking among the young is particularly worrying. But the vast majority of New Zealanders drink responsibly, and no one is served by wild, emotive claims that make the liquor problem seem far worse than it is.