(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, June 1.)
It has become accepted wisdom that New Zealand has a serious drinking problem. But do we? And if we do, what’s the reason?
Let’s start by tackling that first question. In 2014 the World Health Organisation published a table showing per capita alcohol consumption in 190 countries.
New Zealand was ranked 31st . At first glance, that seems a bit of a worry. It suggests we’re among the world’s heaviest boozers.
But that ranking needs to be put into perspective. In many of those 190 countries, especially those in Asia and Africa, alcohol has never been a big part of the local culture. Consumption is accordingly modest.
Many Asians have a good biological reason to avoid liquor. It’s estimated that 36 per cent of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans lack the vital enzymes (technically known as acetaldehyde dehydrogenases) that enable their bodies to metabolise alcohol.
For these unfortunate souls, drinking can induce nausea, trigger a rash and cause the heart to race – all good reasons for abstaining.
Now, factor in the many countries where drinking is discouraged and even prohibited for religious reasons. That includes the entire Islamic world.
Take all that into account, and the list of countries that New Zealand can meaningfully be compared with becomes a lot shorter.
A better way of assessing where we stand in terms of alcohol consumption is to look at countries that are broadly similar to us culturally and ethnically. Here we emerge in a more favourable light.
According to the WHO figures, New Zealanders drink 10.9 litres of pure alcohol per year. That’s less than the French and Australians (12.2), the Irish (11.9), the Germans (11.8), the British (11.6) and the Danes (11.4).
So what conclusion what can we draw from our WHO ranking? A common reaction might be one of surprise.
We have been so bombarded by anti-liquor propaganda – some of it verging on hysterical – that many people are convinced we really are in the grip of a ruinous binge-drinking culture.
Relax. We’re not. In fact official figures show that alcohol consumption in New Zealand is in gradual decline – another fact at odds with the constant barrage of anti-liquor rhetoric.
Does this mean we don’t have a drinking problem after all? Well, no.
The vast majority of New Zealanders who enjoy alcohol do so responsibly and in moderation. They drink without causing harm to themselves or others.
Panic over binge drinking is generated by a small but highly visible minority of mainly young drinkers who haven’t learned to control their consumption.
These are the drunks the TV cameras love to show fighting, falling over and vomiting in the gutter in Wellington’s Courtenay Place or Auckland’s Fort St in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings.
They are a problem, but they are not typical of New Zealand drinkers. Just ask yourself: when did you last witness a brawl in a café where people were drinking, at a family gathering or even in the local pub?
Now, let’s return to the second question I posed at the start of this column. If we do have a drinking problem – and we do, though it’s a very limited one – then what causes it?
The finger-waggers in the universities and the public health bureaucracy will say it’s the demon drink. That’s the justification for their determined campaign to reduce alcohol availability – in other words, to limit the free exercise of choice by other New Zealanders.
But if alcohol is the problem, how is it that most of us are able to enjoy it without turning violent or causing mayhem on the road? If alcohol has us in its grip, how come we’re able to drink in moderation and know when to stop?
An answer was provided in a report written last year by British anthropologist Anne Fox, who has made a career out of studying drinking cultures.
Fox was commissioned by the liquor conglomerate Lion to study drinking behaviour in New Zealand and Australia. Predictably her credibility was questioned because of where her funding came from, but no one has seriously challenged her main finding – which was, in a nutshell, that it’s not alcohol that’s the problem: it’s us.
For whatever reason, a culture has developed in Australia and New Zealand in which alcohol is used as a convenient excuse for behaving badly and failing to exercise self-control.
But bad behaviour is not an inevitable consequence of drinking, and it doesn’t happen elsewhere in the world.
In a recent column in the Listener, Berlin-based New Zealand journalist Cathrin Schaer marvelled that alcohol is freely available everywhere in Germany and drinking is considered a pleasurable part of everyday life.
German laws, she wrote, tend to emphasise individual responsibility. Behave badly and you’ll be busted, but otherwise you’re free to drink where and when you like.
Getting drunk, Schaer added, is considered uncool. “It’s as though an unwritten social code says if we treat you like an adult, you’d better act like one.”
In New Zealand, the reverse is true. Drinkers are expected to behave badly because it’s not their fault – it’s the booze. This view empowers the control freaks who want to change us by making alcohol harder to get.
But if the Germans can drink responsibly (and the French, and the Spanish, and the Dutch), then why can’t we? For the answer to that question we have to stop blaming alcohol and take a hard, critical look at ourselves.