People directly caught up in awful events, or even on their periphery, are not likely to make the most rational judgments about them. We respectfully hear them out, but their arguments are often clouded - understandably - by intense emotion.
Take the Auckland doctor whose son attends the same school as James Webster, the 16-year-old who tragically drank himself to death at the weekend. Dr Margaret Abercrombie dashed off a letter to the prime minister urging the government to take action over teenage drinking. On Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon programme on Radio New Zealand today, Dr Abercrombie said Parliament should make it more difficult to get access to alcohol. She mentioned price increases as one tool for reducing availability.
The immediate and obvious problem with this approach is that there is nothing Parliament could have done to prevent James getting hold of the bottle of vodka that killed him. It belonged to his grandmother and he obtained it from a cupboard at her home. Besides, at 16, James was two years below the legal purchasing age even now, demonstrating that age controls are of limited effectiveness in curtailing teenage drinking.
To be fair, Dr Abercrombie wasn’t talking only about James’ death, but about the wider problem of teenage binge drinking. But even here we are left with a problem that I believe defies simplistic legislative solutions.
New Zealand teenagers, in common with those of the same age group in other predominantly Anglo-Saxon countries, regard getting pissed as a rite of passage. It has always seemed to me that there is a large element of defiance involved in this.
They see their elders as hypocritically consuming alcohol but wanting to deny it to them. Teenagers being teenagers, their instinct is to defy authority. Alcohol thus takes on the aura of forbidden fruit; it becomes even more desirable.
I wouldn’t argue that this alone explains New Zealand’s teenage binge-drinking culture, but it’s an important factor. It follows that the more you try to keep teenagers from getting access to alcohol, the more determined they will become to acquire it by one means or another. If they can’t buy it legally, they’ll raid the liquor cupboard at home.
This is nothing new. I remember the frisson of excitement when, as a primary school pupil, I aided and abetted a friend in pillaging his parents’ cocktail cabinet. Granted, there was a degree of curiosity about what alcohol tasted like; but far more important was the thrill of defying and outfoxing our parents.
Later, in my teenage years, my friends and I would go to great lengths to procure illicit alcohol – not because we particularly liked the stuff (it took me years to acquire a taste for beer) but because drinking it made us feel like real men. Whoever in our group had a driver’s licence would be delegated to take us to whatever pub was known to have a clandestine after-hours trade and to ask no questions about age. This often meant a round trip of 80 miles, which was a measure of our determination.
But there’s a potent factor affecting teenage drinking today that wasn’t around even in my time. It was identified in an article in the New Zealand Herald earlier this year by Michael Duncan, a sociology lecturer at Carey Baptist College in Auckland.
Duncan noted that radio host Murray Deaker had recently interviewed Sir Geoffrey Palmer about binge-drinking by young women and both had concurred that the message must be got to these young women that drinking to get drunk was quite simply dangerous.
Duncan then went on:
“I agree with Deaker’s and Palmer’s views but not with their recommended action. To tell these young middle-class women today that drinking to get drunk is dangerous is to only exacerbate the problem.
“The very reason why many young women drink to get drunk is because it is dangerous. They drink to get drunk so as to be in danger. Let me explain.
“Many of these young women come from middle-class homes where they were brought up on a diet of safety. Their well-meaning parents worked hard to keep them from harm's way. Schools, play yards, swimming pools, outings, malls, you name it; all had to be safe for their children. It is this generation of children that has become known as the ‘cotton-wool kids’.”
In this culture of fear, Duncan wrote, risk was stigmatised and an excessive preoccupation with precaution and safety became the new bottom line. “These girls were brought up to be risk- averse. But then the inevitable happened and these girls morphed into young women. Not surprisingly, they began to individuate themselves from their parents, principals and inherited principles; they rebelled against safety and looked for danger. For cotton-wool kids recklessness has become the new form of rebellion.”
For many of these young women, he concluded, binge-drinking was not about alcohol or simply getting “pissed”. Rather, it was about creating dangerous situations where they didn’t know what would happen next. Drinking sessions, for them, were a high-wire act, full of exhilarating fear and unanswered questions. Having been brought up on safety, they hungered for risk.
That’s a very perceptive analysis, my only criticism being that Duncan confined it to young women. I believe it applies at least equally to young men who cut loose the moment they escape parental control and are able to make up for all the risky behaviour they weren’t allowed to indulge in earlier. Binge-drinking is just one manifestation of that; the boy-racer culture is another, arguably more lethal, one.
Hence my misgivings about the restrictive approach advocated by the Law Commission in its recent report on the liquor laws, and even more vociferously espoused by the New Wowser lobby in the health agencies and universities. By making alcohol harder to get, they risk making it seem even more dangerous and hence more alluring.
Sure, we have a serious and worrying teenage binge-drinking problem. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. And it has been greatly exacerbated by some liquor companies that have aggressively targeted the youth market – none more so than Independent Liquor, which pioneered alco-pops, and was rightly fingered by Dominion Post columnist Linley Boniface yesterday. It becomes that much harder to defend responsible liquor consumption when a segment of the industry seems determined to promote irresponsible consumption. (The Liquorland chain is culpable too, as Linley demonstrated when she revealed a slogan from the company’s website: “We’ll get the stuff to your car – because why only buy as much as you can carry?”. Small wonder the New Wowsers have gained so much political traction when these morons play into their hands.)
My concern, as explained before in this blog, is that turning the clock back on liberalisation of the liquor laws will serve at best to prolong, and at worst set back, an already difficult struggle (and it has gone on for decades) to get to a point where teenagers will no longer regard alcohol purely as means of writing themselves off.
I don’t know what the solution is, beyond suggesting that it lies in a much more complex social and cultural change than is likely to be achieved through simplistic legislative and regulatory changes (though they may have a role to play). But I do know the solution doesn’t lie in telling teenagers they can’t drink – the prohibition approach. Whatever barriers are placed in their way, they’ll find a way around them; they will delight in outwitting the law, because that’s how teenagers behave. And the risk is that stricter laws will drive them into the hands of black marketers and we’ll end up with even less control than we have now.