Friday, October 16, 2009

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

In my Curmudgeon column last Tuesday (see below), I wrote about the phrase “moral panic”. I described this as a term used by the Left to ridicule legitimate middle-class concerns about anti-social behaviour such as violent crime, but pointed out that the Left was not above fomenting moral panic itself on issues such as climate change, parental smacking and the alcohol laws.

As if to prove my point, Doug Sellman, director of Otago University’s National Addiction Centre, obligingly chimed in only two days later in the Dom Post with a textbook outburst of moral panic over alcohol.

In a highly overwrought piece, Sellman called for heavy-handed intervention to curtail the “damage” done by liquor consumption and rein in the “drug pushing” liquor industry. He wants the government to crack down severely on liquor advertising and marketing, increase the price of alcohol, raise the legal purchasing age and greatly reduce both the hours of sale and the number of liquor outlets. He describes these as “proven” strategies, though he doesn’t back up that claim. On the other hand he dismisses, without elaboration, Justice Minister Simon Power’s perfectly reasonable statement that how we drink is “a product of our culture and will only change gradually over time”. Sellman is convinced that our drinking culture is the direct result of clever marketing by fiendish liquor barons – he calls them drug merchants – who mesmerise helpless children into developing “a lifelong habit of alcohol drug use”. This, he argues, can only be changed by state coercion.

His piece was heavy on emotion and light on fact, unless you counted highly dubious statistics such as the claim – supposedly based on World Health Organisation “best practice” criteria – that 700,000 New Zealanders are “heavy drinkers”. I’m always sceptical about that phrase “best practice”, and more so than usual in this case because I suspect that “best practice” is arbitrarily defined by people like Doug Sellman to suit their own agendas.

It's worth recalling that the "safe" drinking limit that guided British alcohol policy for 20 years - 21 units of alcohol 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 which didn't really have a clue how much alcohol was safe. I suspect the WHO definition of "heavy drinkers" falls into the same category.

What little substantive argument Sellman put forward was greatly overshadowed by his frequent resort to highly emotive scaremongering, such as the shrill assertion - again supposedly based on that WHO definition - that New Zealand's number of heavy drinkers equals the combined populations of Wellington and Christchurch. He says if we don’t act soon, the “widespread damage associated with excess alcohol will continue for decades to come”. If that’s not inciting moral panic, I don’t know what is. It reminded me of the famous injunction over the door of the public bar in the old Temperance Union propaganda poster: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”.

The tone of his piece also served to reinforce my suspicion that much of the hue and cry over liquor is underpinned by hostility to free markets and capitalism.

I’m no cheerleader for the liquor industry, as anyone who has read what I have written recently about New Zealand’s alcohol problem will attest. But the last people we want writing our alcohol policy are moralistic academics.

What Sellman conveniently overlooks is that overall, New Zealanders have become much more civilised drinkers – as anyone my age, remembering the barbaric drinking culture of the 1960s, can attest. 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. This tends to bear out Simon Power's statement that our drinking habits can change over time. But in his eagerness to turn the clock back, Sellman chooses to disregard all these positive developments, preferring to focus on a troublesome minority of binge drinkers to the exclusion of everything else.

He also chooses to disregard the role of personal responsibility. Sellman wants the state to make our liquor consumption decisions for us, because clearly we are not capable of making them wisely for ourselves. In fact Sellman displays a conspicuously low regard for the intelligence of his fellow citizens, apparently regarding them as powerless to resist the mind-controlling techniques of the booze barons and their pernicious advertising agencies.

The great danger in the current climate of moral panic over alcohol, so assiduously whipped up by people like Sellman, is that policy changes will be driven by alarm over the behaviour of a small but conspicuous minority of problem drinkers. In the process, the majority who drink responsibly will be penalised.

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