Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alcohol panic crosses a new threshold

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 25.)

You know hysteria over alcohol has reached an entirely new level when a waitress refuses to serve a glass of sparkling wine to a pregnant woman.

It happened last week in Auckland. The woman, 36 weeks pregnant with her second child, was out for dinner with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She said she was flabbergasted and embarrassed when the waitress refused her request.
The duty manager backed his staff member, claiming he had discretion under law to refuse service “for health reasons”. (Wrong: the law stipulates only that minors and intoxicated people are barred from being served.)

The woman, a teacher, was compensated with a free ginger beer. How bloody humiliating.
To his credit, the co-owner of the bar subsequently apologised for his over-zealous staff and acknowledged they had no right to do what they did. But he added – and here’s the significant bit – that he could understand why they acted that way, given health warnings about the effects of intoxication and growing pressure from society and the authorities to exercise “host responsibility”.

So this is what it has come to. Alcohol is now so demonised that an apparently intelligent, mature, sober woman in the last weeks of a healthy pregnancy is denied a single glass of wine because busybody bar staff are worried that it will pose a threat to her baby’s health.
To be sure, foetal alcohol syndrome, whereby chronic brain damage is done to babies exposed to excessive alcohol in the womb, is a terrible thing. But I suspect its risks have been greatly overstated.

A generation ago, we’d never heard of it. Women knew intuitively not to drink heavily during pregnancy, but I know of none who abstained completely.
My wife drank in moderation throughout her pregnancies and all four of our children are normal (at least as far as I can tell). The same was true of our friends.

But women are now are so intimidated by health warnings that they daren’t touch a drop of alcohol from the moment their pregnancy is confirmed till the baby is safely delivered. This is crazy.
The mantra promoted by anti-liquor obsessives in public health agencies and universities is that no amount of alcohol is safe. No doubt that’s true, in a strictly theoretical sense, but it’s also theoretically correct that you can’t venture out in your car without risking an accident.

That doesn’t deter us from driving. As with so many things in life, we make sensible, balanced judgments about what poses an unacceptable degree of risk. If our lives were to be governed by fear of theoretical harm, we would spend our lives cowering indoors.
The trouble is, control freaks and moral crusaders in positions of influence within the bureaucracy and academia don’t trust ordinary people to make common-sense decisions about how they conduct their lives.

Through a long campaign of scaremongering (mostly funded by the taxpayer), they have largely succeeded in persuading society that because a small minority of drinkers over-indulge in alcohol and do bad things to themselves and others, everyone must be subjected to prohibitions.
Because a few women recklessly binge-drink during pregnancy, at obvious risk to their babies, all pregnant women are now made to feel guilty and irresponsible if they have a single glass of wine.

This is absurd. Britain’s National Health Service guidelines state that experts are still unsure how much alcohol is safe in pregnancy, so the best approach is not to drink at all. Call this the failsafe option.
More realistically, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says small amounts of alcohol (not more than one to two units once or twice a week) have not been shown to be harmful.

It’s a big leap from there to saying that pregnant women must abstain totally.  But the anti-liquor obsessives have created such a climate of moral panic that even bar staff now feel empowered to tell a sober, mature woman what she may or may not drink.
The police, too, have been caught up in this moral crusade, enforcing the new drink-driving laws with a rigour that comes close to harassment. Drivers are likely to encounter police checkpoints anywhere and at any hour of the day – even on their way to work in the morning.

Police justify this by saying people can still be over the limit from the night before. But really, how many serious accidents are caused by drunks driving to work? It’s ridiculous, and it lends weight to the suspicion that it’s more about revenue gathering than road safety.
Of course the statistics look good if they show that police  have trapped hundreds of slightly over-the-limit drivers, thereby preventing (or so they would like us to believe) mayhem and carnage on the roads. But this over-zealous crackdown risks alienating public goodwill, especially when anecdotal evidence suggests that people dialling 111 about what might be called “real” crime – break-ins, shoplifting, stock thefts and the like – are often told the police don’t have the resources to respond.


Lindsay Mitchell said...

The degree of support for the waitress was an unpleasant surprise when Sean Plunket canvassed the issue on Radio Live. Sean took a similar line to you Karl.

Many of the callers condemning the pregnant patron were male. I sent the following comment:

"This argument about drinking during pregnancy can be taken to another level.

What about men smoking and drinking as prospective fathers?

Here's a scientific finding:

"Heavy smoking was associated with decreased sperm counts and alcohol consumption was associated with increased numbers of morphologically abnormal sperm. "

So should bar staff be asking a male patron if he is part of a couple 'trying to get pregnant' before serving him?

Ultimately, only personal responsibility positively affects behaviour."

Karl du Fresne said...

There were a few predictably loony comments on the Nelson Mail website (e.g. "Drinking should be punishable by law"), but overall the tone was encouraging. Most New Zealanders have more common sense than to be taken in by the promoters of moral panic, even if Parliament and the police don't.