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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJune 1, 2021

Where’s that drink taking us?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

After taking some time off drinking (and journalism), Matt Shand discovered that even those who don’t drink pay a heavy price for the harm caused by alcohol.

At university, the saying was the only person who drank more than a journalist was a student journalist. It’s a bad saying, mostly because it’s wrong. Journalists have a front row seat to alcohol’s worst consequences.

There are the photographers who attend crime scenes and fatal crashes caused by alcohol, witnessing the raw emotion at the police cordon. Community reporters writing, again, about the latest failed attempt by a concerned community to stop a bottle shop opening up in South Auckland. Court reporters hearing the intimate details of harm. The macabre formula of consumption, addiction, abuse, repeat, repeat, repeat. Too often the victims are children.

Alcohol impacts us all differently. Some of us can have a beer and think nothing of it, but for others negotiating drinking is like walking a tight rope. You can fall off seemingly before you even realise. It can bring you very low, very quickly.

Whether you wear the wowser badge with pride, drink occasionally or drink heavily, you pay the cost of alcohol harm in very direct ways. Not everyone has a drinking problem but everyone in New Zealand has a problem because of other people’s drinking.

The Ministry of Health says foetal alcohol syndrome could cost New Zealand $450 million a year. This is just one, narrow aspect of alcohol harm, yet it represents about 40% of the money earned from excise tax from the product that directly causes it.

Māngere East local Shirl’e Fruean attends a protest outside a proposed liquor store in the area. (Photo: Justin Latif)

What’s to be done? We only need to look at the United States to know that banning alcohol doesn’t work. People drank anyway and Al Capone made a lot of money. But do we need alcohol plastered on billboards? Do we want it to be delivered to our doors within 10 minutes from an app on our phones?

When our laws regulating alcohol were written, the idea you could push a button and have alcohol at your door within minutes was unimaginable.

The law, at least, needs updating. Minister of justice Kris Faafoi says a review is being considered. There is much to consider: do we need sporting heroes endorsing products that cause harm? Does excise tax need to increase and how should it be spent? Will there be a standalone entity in the new health care system dedicated to addressing alcohol harm?

Recent members’ bills have drawn attention to the issue of alcohol for different reasons. Labour MP Kieran McAnulty, who looks dapper in his Tui-branded bucket hat on his Twitter page, has a bill that will make it easier to drink on Easter holidays, Christmas Day and Anzac Day.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, at the other end of the spectrum, aims to end alcohol advertising, including sponsorship of sport, and to abolish the appeals process that makes it hard for communities to oppose liquor licences in their area.

In order for either bill to skip the biscuit tin and head to the debating floor they need the support of 61 non-executive members of parliament.

“I need 11 signatures from National MPs to make it happen,” Swarbrick has said. Some may cringe and say the Nats will never support it, but alcohol has never been a left vs right issue. National MPs have not been silent on the issue of alcohol-related harm.

Former party leader Simon Bridges has asked questions in parliament recently about how much alcohol-related harm costs the country. Fellow MP Todd Muller says, “The real bogeyman with alcohol is that we have four million people who want alcohol to be cheap, readily available and are willing to put up with harm to allow this to happen.”

The opportunity to deeply research public health issues like alcohol harm is why I left the newsroom to take up a job with think tank the Helen Clark Foundation. I’ll be back one day, but this is a beat that requires undivided attention.

My interest in alcohol harm came off the back of spending a year sober to break habits formed before, during and after university. It was truly eye-opening stuff, working as a clear-headed journalist.

I found that it was a bit like when you buy a new car and suddenly see the same one everywhere. You start to notice the cans of cheap bourbon at a crime scene. The lines at bottle shops in small towns. Personally, you notice how seldom you need to take out the recycling compared to before and how much less of the weekend is wasted to “dustiness”. It certainly makes you face why you started drinking that much in the first place.

These days the drinks have trickled back in, but as a trickle instead of the student-style stream.

Hopefully on return to a newsroom, the alcohol-related harm will be, at least, slightly improved as a result of a review or more resources for helping those who fell off their tight rope. That will be something worthy of a celebratory toast.

Matt Shand is the health equity fellow at the Helen Clark Foundation

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