It’s interesting the way the neo-wowser lobby sets out to discredit its opponents by insinuation. Wellington alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking, in a recent letter to The Listener, suggested that as someone who occasionally writes about wine, I have a vested interest in promoting alcohol. In a subsequent letter, someone else who objected to my recent Listener article questioning the current wave of anti-alcohol hysteria described me as an alcohol industry apologist. And I see in the latest issue that Professor Doug Sellman, taking a second shot at me after already having had a substantial letter published, comments that it’s big of me to “admit” my vested interest in trying to downplay the extent of New Zealand’s alcohol problem. This was in reference to a brief letter I had written in response to Brooking, in which I acknowledged that I occasionally write about wine (there’s hardly any point in denying it) and added that the amount of money I made from it was extremely modest by anyone’s standards – a statement The Listener was kind enough to reiterate in a footnote to Sellman’s letter.
In fact I’d go further than that and say the money I make from writing about wine, or commenting on it, is risible. The only thing that prevents me from disclosing the amount is embarrassment at how little I am prepared to accept in return for my efforts. It’s sufficient to say that it makes up an inconsequential portion of my income, which itself isn’t exactly stratospheric. And I can say with absolute certainty that I earn a lot less defending the right of New Zealanders to drink responsibly than Professor Sellman makes trying to panic politicians into interfering with our freedom of choice. (And what’s more, unlike Professor Sellman, the money I earn doesn’t come from my fellow taxpayers.)
But that’s not the point. What’s significant is that the neo-wowsers are so desperate that they will seize whatever red herring or innuendo they can find to smear their opponents, while simultaneously avoiding substantive discussion of issues on which their arguments are weak.
They don’t seem interested, for instance, in discussing the inconvenient fact that per capita consumption of alcohol in New Zealand is below the OECD average, and well below the figures for many Western European countries. They pretend not to hear when it’s pointed out that in recent drink-driving blitzes, the number of drivers over the legal limit was about 0.6 percent, which rather undermines their claims that drunks are causing mayhem on the highways. And they are conspicuously short of hard evidence to support their shrill insistence that reducing the legal blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05 will make a dramatic difference to road deaths, most of which are caused – if alcohol is involved at all – by drivers who are way above the 0.08 level.
No, they would rather smear their opponents as having “vested interests” – because they make a bit of pocket money on the side writing about wine – or being alcohol industry “apologists”, because they insist that most New Zealanders are moderate drinkers who are perfectly capable of making sensible decisions about their liquor consumption. Perhaps, in their simplistic, moralistic way of looking at the world, the only way the neo-wowsers can make sense of anyone who opposes them is to assume ulterior motives.
It gets tedious having to repeat this, but not only am I not an alcohol industry apologist; I actually share some of the neo-wowsers’ concerns about the way alcohol is promoted and sold. It is probably the only point on which we are on common ground, at least to some extent. I have several times criticised the way some liquor industry interests deliberately promote and exploit the moronic cult of the pisshead, which I probably find as distasteful as the Sellmanites do. But at its core, this debate is not about the behaviour of the people who make and sell alcohol; it’s about the freedom of responsible individuals to make their own decisions. Strident propaganda about wicked booze barons is a sideshow; a way of manipulating the emotions of the impressionable.
Having got that out of the way, let’s turn to the Herald on Sunday's absurd “Two Drinks Max” campaign, launched last Sunday. On one level, it’s hard to argue with. If people want to restrict themselves to two drinks, who could possibly object? It’s a worthy goal.
But what makes the Herald on Sunday campaign ridiculous, to the point of almost negating all its credibility, is the barrage of simplistic, alarmist and emotive propaganda that accompanies it. Like other media outlets, the APN tabloid appears to have unquestioningly swallowed the lurid, shock-horror claims of the neo-wowsers. Either that, or it’s a cynical marketing exercise by a paper eager to win readers with a shallow, populist crusade.
As proof of its serious intent, the Herald on Sunday presented us with the carefully considered opinions of several recognised authorities on the liquor question. They included actresses, models, fashion designers, TV presenters, radio hosts and a celebrity real estate agent. As an example of their compelling arguments, here are some excerpts:
[Herald on Sunday to model Nicky Watson] Why do you support lowering the limit?
Because it is clear that we need to there are still so many accidents on the road and from my own personal experience if I had two glasses of wine I wouldn’t drive. [This is exactly as Watson’s statement appears on the paper’s website.]
[Herald on Sunday to real estate agent Michael Boulgaris] Have you had personal experience of drink driving accidents?
No but I do have a drink drive conviction, that is why I am so passionate about what you are trying to do.
What was that like?
It was a nightmare. It was very embarrassing. When you go overseas and they ask do you have a criminal record you don't know what to say. When you go to renew your insurance, your premium goes up. People have to realise the consequences. It's just frowned upon.
[Herald on Sunday to Colin Mathura-Jeffree] Do you support lowering the drink/drive limit to 50 mg – already in place in many countries and recommended by NZ police, MoT and Alcohol Healthwatch?
Yes, it’s about safety. We need to look after each other. People who use the roads are at risk from drink drivers every time they get into their car or onto their bike or even when they use the footpaths.
Come on New Zealand, safety first. Don't drink and drive, just don’t do it.
Have you or your friends or family been involved in a drink driving crash or been a victim of one?
Yes a friend of mine was the drink-driver in a crash. No-one was hurt but it’s too easy to end up hurting someone else. Regret and hindsight are the saddest things.
We need to sort it out. It doesn’t have to happen in the first place.
[Herald on Sunday to New Zealand’s Next Top Model host Sara Tetro] Will you pledge your name to the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign?
Why do you think it's important to get behind the campaign?
Anything that's going to keep every member of society safe on the road has got to be a good thing. This is one of many things that needs to happen. Anything that might work is worth a try.
Well, I ask you: how much more proof do you need? I’m convinced. Where do I sign up?
Seriously, there’s much more in this vein, and even worse. You can read it here:
I was delighted to see that my old colleague Raybon Kan, approached by the HoS to register his dismay and horror at the mayhem wreaked by alcohol, slipped in a subversive contribution that no one at the paper seemed to recognise as a bit of a pisstake. It included the following:
Do you support lowering the drink/drive limit to 50 mg – already in place in many countries and recommended by MoT, ALAC and Alcohol Healthwatch? Why?
For what it’s worth, I agree with lowering the limit. I think “Two drinks max” is good too – a rule of thumb should be catchy. It ought to be easy for drunk people to recite. In fact, make it a jingle. Drunk people enjoy little songs. But I can't help thinking someone drunk might just say, “Stop calling me Max”.
Will you pledge your name to the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign?
Yes. Are the drinks free with the newspaper?
Go Raybon. I’ll buy you a beer next time I see you.