We drink to get drunk, to forget, to lose inhibitions

Met up with an old schoolmate the other day. Thoughtful bloke. Done well for himself, although he might take issue with that bland commonplace.

He did just that when we were talking about another former classmate he hadn't seen since school days.

"He's done very well for himself," I said.

"Yes, but what does that mean?" he questioned.

Quite right, too. Abandon the pleasantries. Cut to the chase.

As I said - thoughtful. In fact my old friend - let's call him Doug - is paid to think. He's spent a good part of his career doing it - as a psychiatrist, a professor and a specialist in addictions.

Lately he has been doing rather a lot of thinking. Mostly about drinking; or more precisely about alcohol, and the problems it presents our society.

As part of that brief he has unearthed a good number of pertinent facts: knotty, chewy, indigestible, all of which go to the harm unconstrained and indiscriminate consumption of booze promotes.

For example: one third of all police apprehensions involve alcohol. And if that is not enough, consider this: half - half - of serious violent crimes are related to alcohol.

There are more than 300 alcohol-related offences committed every day, and more than 500 serious and fatal injury traffic crashes every year in which hooch is implicated.

We - or a worrisome proportion of us - are drinking ourselves to death, or doing our best to do so: there are more than 1000 alcohol deaths in New Zealand every year; 60 different medical conditions are caused by heavy drinking; up to 75% of adult presentations at hospital emergency departments on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are alcohol-related; at least 600 children are born every year with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

As Doug says, this country has a drinking problem. And it seems a growing number of sources and people are beginning to acknowledge this.

Just yesterday the Ministry of Health released key results from its 2007-08 alcohol and drug-use survey. Not quite as scary as Doug's figures, nonetheless they point to similar issues.

And in a poll of 500 people conducted by Research New Zealand, the results of which were reported on Monday, 75% believed that the lowering of the drinking age from 20 to 18 a decade ago has had a negative effect; 5% believed it had had a positive effect and 17% no effect at all.

Likewise, nearly two-thirds of those polled believed that anyone found drunk in a public place should receive an instant fine.

The poll was based around several recommendations put forward by the New Zealand Law Commission arising from a comprehensive review of alcohol consumption in this country and the statutory environment surrounding it.

There was less of a majority on one of the commission's heralded recommendations: a split purchasing age, whereby 18-year-olds would be able to buy alcoholic drinks in bars but would have to be 20 to buy it in stores. Only 51% agreed with this proposition; 46% disagreed.

Doug and his Alcohol Action group pull fewer punches: they have what is called a "5+ solution" which calls for raising alcohol prices, raising the purchase age, reducing alcohol accessibility, reducing marketing and advertising, and increasing drink-driving counter measures.

The presence of 20,000-odd students in North Dunedin, some of them intoxicated on the "freedom" of being away from home for the first time, means the issue of alcohol is never far from the headlines in this city.

Notwithstanding today's news that alcohol advertising and sponsorship will in future be banned from University of Otago campuses and buildings, the figures presented by Alcohol Action show that it is a much bigger problem - more deeply embedded across society. Which is why the student blame-game that erupts every time a rowdy student street party results in a few arrests is tinged with a degree of hypocrisy.

I like the idea of a society in which it's commonplace to enjoy a civilised glass of wine with dinner; or a quiet beer after a sporting encounter.

Unfortunately the evidence seems to be that this is not the way a great many of us imbibe: we drink to get drunk, to forget, to lose inhibitions, or summon up courage, bravado, anger, whatever other "feelings" we are unable to articulate in the course of our workaday lives and relationships. And we routinely drink to excess. A culture of emotional retards bingeing our way to self-expression?

Next time I see him, must ask Doug about it.

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

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