I sometimes wonder whether Professor Doug Sellman counts a doctorate in hyperbole among his other academic qualifications. Prof Sellman, a professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Otago University, is arguably the most vociferous of the many people campaigning for tighter alcohol laws and has a knack for exaggeration that would be the envy of tabloid newspaper journalists.
He was at it again this week, telling The Dominion Post: “Drunkenness is viewed as a perfectly normal mental state for both young and older people to be in on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in New Zealand. If you’re not drunk, you can’t possibly be having a good time.”
As usual, in an attempt to get his message across with maximum impact (for which the media love him), he both exaggerates and over-simplifies. I would argue that drunkenness is viewed as a normal mental state only by the comparatively small but highly visible group of drinkers who get themselves into that state. It is not viewed as normal by the great majority of New Zealanders who drink moderately and responsibly. Like me, they probably find drunkenness highly distasteful.
I would also argue that the number of adults (as opposed to young drinkers) who get drunk on Thursday and Friday nights is a fraction of what it used to be. Prof Sellman may not have experienced it – he was possibly too busy studying – but I have no difficulty recalling an era when a large proportion of the working population routinely went to the pub after work every Thursday or Friday and reeled out plastered at closing time.
That once prevalent habit has virtually died out, and it can be no coincidence that it died during the years when the drinking laws were progressively being liberalised (though tougher drink-driving laws helped too).
I also dispute Prof Sellman’s assertion that younger people get drunk because they mimic their elders, and that teens stay out all night drinking because they have learned from their parents that “life can’t be enjoyed without alcohol, that social events aren’t proper events without alcohol”.
I don’t believe for a moment that the young drunks making fools of themselves in Courtenay Place on Friday and Saturday nights all come from homes where their parents set a bad example by routinely getting pissed. They are simply doing what young people have always done: celebrating their newfound independence by rebelling and doing things that they know their parents would not condone. The notion that teenage binge drinking is a new phenomenon is one of the great canards of our times. It is simply a new term.
As for Prof Sellman’s classically wowserish disapproval of the relationship between alcohol and social occasions, I can only suggest he face up to the fact that alcohol has a very long and respectable history in Western culture as a useful and pleasant social lubricant. The Bible is testimony to that: even Jesus Christ knew that weddings were less enjoyable if the wine ran out. If Prof Sellman is bent on reversing social habits that have been ingrained for thousands of years, I can only wish him luck.
He also needs to understand that people don’t have to get drunk to enjoy the convivial benefits of alcohol. Most New Zealanders have no difficulty grasping this. To equate alcohol with drunkenness, as he habitually does, is reminiscent of the shock tactics of the early 20th century abolitionists.
Like the neo-wowser who wrote a plaintive letter to The Dominion Post a few months ago rebuking the paper for publishing photos of people holding glasses of wine and beer at social events, Prof Sellman doesn’t seem to accept the legitimacy of alcohol in the social context. Like many idealistic reformers, he is on a quixotic mission to perfect humanity, even if it means having to ignore our cultural history.
Oddly enough, there is much that Prof Sellman and I agree on. Like him, I detest the binge-drinking culture. Like him, I abhor drunkenness and fail to understand why anyone would want to get themselves into that state. I even understand his concerns about alcohol marketing and promotion strategies that effectively encourage binge drinking.
Where we part company is in his demonising of alcohol and constant over-statement of the extent of the alcohol problem. He refuses to accept that the vast majority of New Zealand adults are moderate drinkers, a fact confirmed by figures that show we are below the OECD average for per capita consumption. Prof Sellman even refuses to accept there is any such creature as a “responsible drinker”. This is the stance of the zealot.
And I resent even more strongly his attempts to impose his own narrow, moralistic views on his fellow New Zealanders, whom he thinks cannot be trusted to make sensible and responsible choices.