Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Holding the line against the neo-wowsers

I’m not in the habit of expressing unalloyed admiration for politicians of any colour, but the more I see and hear of Transport Minister Steven Joyce, the more I like him. He's sharp, articulate and politically astute, but affable too.

Joyce was on Morning Report this morning calmly and sensibly batting away the latest salvo from the anti-liquor activists in the transport and health bureaucracies.

The latest phase in the neo-wowsers’ campaign to tighten the liquor laws (a campaign which, I grudgingly admit, has been adroitly planned and orchestrated – largely at the taxpayers’ expense) was the release under the Official Information Act of papers showing that the government disregarded an avalanche of “expert” advice from the Ministry of Transport on the need to reduce the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05mg per 100ml of blood.

It has been a feature of the neo-wowsers’ campaign that their claims are generally accepted uncritically by the media, even when they don’t stand up to close analysis. It seems to be assumed that because they are public officials, and therefore theoretically concerned only with our wellbeing, their integrity is unassailable. Promoting the notion that they are driven by a "public good" mission is a central part of the neo-wowsers’ strategy. This is presumed to give them the moral high ground and therefore trump any counter-arguments.

The neo-wowsers are highly selective in their use of statistics, disregarding any figures that don’t suit their agenda, and they don’t seem too bothered if their statements are inconsistent. My reading of today’s Dom Post report, for example, indicates that on the one hand, transport officials are saying that if the legal blood alcohol level were reduced, up to 33 lives a year could be saved.

That implies that 33 of the 137 people reportedly killed last year in car accidents involving alcohol had blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08. Yet Radio New Zealand’s report quotes a transport official as saying people with a blood alcohol level of between 0.05 and 0.08 caused 30 deaths between 2006 and 2008.

I’m no mathematician, but there seems to be a marked discrepancy here. But what the heck – any old figures will do as long as they help stampede the public into thinking we have an alcohol-induced crisis on the roads, notwithstanding the rather inconvenient fact that the road toll is steadily trending downwards.

Clearly the release of the MOT papers was intended to embarrass the government into backing down and accepting the neo-wowsers’ demand for a lower legal blood alcohol limit. But to his credit, Joyce stood firm on the government’s decision to seek more detailed research specific to New Zealand.

Studies have already been done which call into question the neo-wowsers’ simplistic claims about the benefits of reducing the limit. For example an ESR study for the police looked at 1,046 drivers who died between 2004 and 2009, of whom 48 percent tested positive for drugs or alcohol either alone or in combination.

The ESR report says that 21 of 351 deceased drivers in the study who had used alcohol – just 2 percent of the 1,046 drivers in the study – had blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08. Only 10 of these drivers had used alcohol alone, while the other 11 had also used a potentially impairing drug.

Of the 351 drivers who had used alcohol, either alone or in combination with another drug, 28 percent had levels of 81-160mg, 35 percent had levels of 161-240mg and 15 percent had levels over 240mg/100ml of blood.

This not only confirms that the real menace on the roads is caused by seriously heavy drinkers, who disregard the legal limits anyway, but also suggests that the use of drugs such as cannabis is a critical factor too.

Even if it could be proved that reducing the blood alcohol limit would reduce the road toll, is that on its own a compelling argument for it? Reducing the speed limit from 100 kmh to 80 kmh would reduce the road toll too, but no one seriously suggests doing it. So would banning all vehicles with no disc brakes or electronic traction control. The question, as in so many issues, is where to strike an appropriate balance that takes reasonable account of safety considerations without becoming unduly oppressive.

If it were left to them, the compulsionists in the bureaucracy and the universities would err on the side of oppression; that’s their instinct because they know what’s best for everyone. Personally I’m relieved that Joyce is holding his hand up and refusing to be rushed.

Footnote: In the latest issue of The Listener, out this week, I argue that the neo-wowser lobby has grossly overstated our alcohol problem and conveniently overlooked the enormous advances in the drinking habits of the typical New Zealander.


Bearhunter said...

I'm looking forward to next week's Listener, which will, no doubt, carry a lengthy diatribe from Doug Sellman denouncing you as a lackey of the "Booze Barons" and fulminating against your clearly biased reportage.

And to ask my favourite question about the liquor debate in NZ yet again, how come the wine industry gets such a free ride in this debate? Not that I am against the wine industry; far from it, I am an enthusiastic supporter of it. But it always seems to be beer and spirits that get the bad press.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Bearhunter, Yet the wine industry would probably suffer the most from a ban on alcohol sales in supermarkets, a major goal of Sellman who has sensationally labelled them "drug pushers".

The probligo said...

... and this is what politic real in NZ has been reduced to - a poll-driven popularity contest.

It was bad enough with the previous government; the jonkey is an absolute expert at formulating and expressing policy in a way that leaves every door open. Is it democracy? Probably.

How sad...

Oh, and I agree; leave my bottle of wine alone. Mind you it would not take a great deal to set up a cooperative to brew our own, somewhere in the hills behind Hokonui, or Kaueranga, or up the Parapara somewheres...

james said...

Karl, just read your article in the listener, loved it. I never understood where the idea came from that NZ has now degenerated into a drunken murderous lot of hoons. As far as I can tell, we always have been. In fact, we seem to be getting better.

I was also impressed with Joyce's ability to stick by his decision in the face of some dodgy statistics. David Farrar has also raised a good point about how many of those between .05 and .08 were over their age limit. (ie under 25).

But, Joyce will never redeem himself in my eyes from the motorbike levies rort, for which he hold responsibility along with Nick Smith. It's costing me $585 a year now to register my Ducati 900 ss. The result will be that I shall now ride the hell out of it just to get my money's worth. That's not gonna reduce the motorbike road toll!!

He should have divulged his dangerous driving conviction for knocking a motor cyclist off during the ACC levies debate. He was probably too happy to see Smith take the heat.

The probligo said...

Mr du Fresne,

As it is Friday, my copy of the Listener has been retrieved from its hiding place on top of the fridge giving me the opportunity to read your article.

I am not going to disagree with you in any way. In fact I am somewhat disappointed that you left out what might be seen as possible solutions.

We agree that the "booze problem" exists, driven as you have said by the neo-wowsers whose consumption of alchohol is limited to that tablespoon of brandy in the Christmas pud; nothing more than that. Oh, that and perhaps the occasional wetting of the lips with the communion wine.

As I see it, there are two problems to be resolved.

The first is the consequence of lowering the drinking age. What to do about that? It might be interesting to see how many of the neo-wowsers suddenly picked up "NO YOU DON'T" signs if it were proposed to reinstate age 20. Oh, and at that point I can not help but wonder how many of the neo-wowser camp support the reduction of the alchohol level for driving from .08 to .05 - I suspect quite a few would sit firmly against that idea...

It is like so many of these social problems. It is the few, the bottom 5% or perhaps 10%, whose excesses will spoil the enjoyment of a good pinot (gris or noir) with a meal out.

So, rather than wailing in the wind about the neo-wowsers spoiling our fun we should give them some real suggestions on how to handle the problem; that basement 10%.

My first reaction is to keep it cheap. Providing drinking drivers with free board and lodging for a week, ten days or a few hours would cost too much. Besides, I (and I suspect a large number of others) might appreciate the opportunity to voice our displeasure in person and on their person.

If you dig back to the time of Dickens there was a common punishment for a wide range of social misdemeanours perhaps or not including public drunkenness.

I can but wonder how many recidivist drunks and louts there would be around town after a spell of a couple hours - or days for the very worst - in the town stocks. Rotten tomatos, very mouldy fruit, very smelly eggs... it could even end with a wash-down under a firehose. User pays? Bring it on!! Fifty cents for a bag of eggs...

Belle said...

I don't drink. For serious medical reasons.On an average evening out I will have at least half a dozen people approach me, sometimes sober, sometimes in various states of drunkenness and ask or sometimes yell where's your drink? And look at me incredulously when I reply that I don’t. I am stared at, pointed at and often feel the need to explain, in detail, the reason why. Often, I feel the need to lie and say I’m the sober driver for the evening. You cannot tell me Karl Du Frense, that this country does not have a drinking problem when it becomes abnormal not to drink, when those who don’t drink becomes outcasts, or even freaks.

Karl du Fresne said...

Nowhere do I say this country hasn't got a drinking problem. There is probably not a country in the Western world that doesn't have a drinking problem. All I am saying is that it has been grossly overstated, and that most New Zealanders are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly without being nannied.

I abhor the sort of behaviour you describe but have to wonder about the circles you move in if that's the common reaction when you tell people you don't want a drink. My advice would be to find some new friends.

Ben Walker said...

Hi Karl,

I know I'm very late with this but I'm a 22 year old Masters student at Victoria University and I just came across your article in the Sept - Oct 2010 Listener today. I'm doing my thesis on the relationship between corporate work and alcohol use, hence why I found your article to be a really interesting read. You made some valid points, I think the 'moral panic' in alcohol discussions is often overdone to the point where it doesn't actually reflect reality.

In a couple of areas I thought some of the statistics I thought were a bit off. At the end of the day I think there's a set of statistics to support any argument, but here are a few areas of your own article that I thought were inconsistent with my own findings. One was the comment about the AA admitting that lowering the BAC wouldn't do much in terms of reducing road accidents caused by drunk drivers. The AA actually supports a comprehensive review of the current BAC on it's website (http://www.aa.co.nz/motoring/aa-torque/speaking-up/safer-drivers/alcohol/), so I feel they were a bit misrepresented in your article. They don't out-and-out say lowering the BAC would be effective, but it's implied I think by the other statements they make.

Also, the statistics I've been using from the Ministry of Transport report is that even at the current BAC, a male over 30 years old is 16x more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than they would be had they not consumed any alcohol (http://www.transport.govt.nz/research/Documents/Alcohol-drugs-crash-fact-sheet-2010.pdf). So I don't think it's acceptable for legislation to allow that risk to be legally taken by individuals, especially when accidents can cause harm to others aside from the drunk driver, and all it takes is having one drink instead of two.

Ben Walker said...

Also, I don't think overall per capita alcohol consumption is really the best indicator of whether alcohol-related harms are being addressed or not. Most of the leading public health researchers (e.g. Fiona Measham and Kevin Brain in the UK) would actually agree with your points about 'moral panic', but that the drinking patterns have fundamentally changed so that there's a situation where there's 'more alcohol down fewer throats'. These types of patterns don't show up on those kind of statistics because the overall level of alcohol consumption is more or less the same and may even be decreasing, but the intense concentration of alcohol consumption in particular groups of society (e.g. young people) is still very damaging. I know the point of your article was to introduce balance to the discussion, and I think it did a good job of that, but I think these are probably quite important considerations in any alcohol-related discussion and they shouldn't be downplayed TOO much. I think it's good to show people the other side of the story, but at the same time I think it's important to avoid using so much rhetorical material that they end up being ignorant of the reality of the situation.

Overall though I thought your article provided some really thought provoking material and provided a good 'counter voice' to the material that dominates alcohol discussions. In the course of writing my thesis I've been making a point of emphasising that 'heavy use' (though vague, it's still a useful term I think) is the real problem, not the mere fact of use. I do think that there is still a lot of room for improvement of the alcohol situation in NZ. I chose to research this topic because being at university for 5 years, I've seen how students drink (in terms of quantity and frequency - students really appear to dedicate themselves to getting very drunk on a regular basis) and to be honest it was quite scary. I also saw similar behaviour while I was at high school. Both my parents drink moderately (glass of wine / a beer with dinner each night), so I wasn't raised in a particularly 'wowsery' environment. I have a big night a few times a year but don't really drink much outside of that. The inspiration for my thesis were the scenes after those night's out down Courtenay Place at 3am on a Sunday, it really made me take notice of how weird it is that that kind of behaviour is such a big part youth culture. A minority in terms of the total population yes, but still a very important health and social issue in my view. I think it's easy to discount this group as a 'minority of excess users' that isn't reflective of overall society, but actually being immersed in that group of people kinda makes you see how messy and dangerous the activities of that minority can be.

I had to give the thesis a work focus given the school I'm enrolled in. I think work is quite an important factor that is missing in a lot of the alcohol discussions. Given that most adults spend 5 days a week, 9 hours a day at work, I think it deserves more of a place in discussions about people's drinking behaviours. Hopefully I can go some way to providing some new and more sociological / anthropological insight into NZers reasons for alcohol use, as you suggest at the end of your Listener article.



Ben Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.