Contrary to belief, we may be losing ‘binge’ from our drinking culture

Has New Zealand’s drinking culture spiralled out of control in the last decade? Statistics  suggest otherwise, so why is there a growing belief that binge-drinking in New Zealand – especially by our youth – has become seriously bad? asks ANNA WILLIAMS:

ON THE TOWN: Wellington’s Courtenay Place at night.

THERE is an air of anticipation.

You can smell it in the freshly applied aftershave the young men leave in their wake as they stride purposefully towards their destination. 

Giggling girls chat animatedly, their voices louder than necessary, mascara’d eyes sparkling with expectation.  Some are dressed already for a night out – heels on, hair straightened – while others are less prepared. They are ticking off a more important item on their to-do list.

A pair of early 20-something guys decked out in matching checked shirts need a trolley to hold four boxes of Flame beer. The girls each clutch a bottle of wine, some two, as they queue in the express lane, ID cards out and ready to go.

It’s 7pm on a Saturday night, and the supermarket is the new liquor store.

A quick survey of the checkout lines reveals the majority of customers to be under 30. The mood is jovial, spirits high, and soon to be higher. The night will officially start when they get home and have their first drink. Many will make their way into town later on, that first drink a distant memory, while some will opt for a cheaper night and choose to avoid the town scene altogether.

For most of New Zealand, this picture is not unusual. Yet it hasn’t always been this way. While New Zealand has always enjoyed a drink, the term ”binge drinking” is now one of the most common ways used to describe our relationship with alcohol.

Ask a foreigner their opinion of our country, and New Zealand and alcohol seem to be almost synonymous. Alcoholics? Not necessarily. Binge drinkers? Definitely.

The Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand (ALAC) defines adult “binge drinking” as seven or more standard drinks consumed in one drinking session.  A young binge drinker is a person between 18-25 who consumed five or more standard drinks on the last occasion they drank alcohol.

In 2010, a survey conducted by ALAC revealed 84 per cent of New Zealand adults 18 years and older drank alcohol to some extent. Of this group, 21 per cent can be classified as binge drinkers, while 63 per cent are ”moderate drinkers”, consuming less than seven standard drinks the last time they drank.

However, according to a 2004 ALAC survey, the average New Zealander would define binge drinking differently. The survey revealed that according to participants, 14 or more standard drinks constituted a binge, the equivalent of 1.6 bottles of wine or 14 cans of beer, as opposed to the official definition of 0.72 of a bottle of wine, or six cans of beer.

The definition of binge drinking also varies depending on what country you are in. In Canada, binge drinking is defined as consuming eight drinks within the same day. In the US, it’s four or more drinks for women, five for men per occasion. In Sweden, it is either half a bottle of spirits or two bottles of wine in one session, and in Finland, six or more bottles of beer.

So does New Zealand have a drinking problem, or is it just a binge drinking problem?

Ask the average New Zealander over the age of 50 and the answer is unanimous: there is a ubiquitous belief that New Zealanders today, especially the young, have a problem with alcohol.

However, talk to a person under the age of 30, and you get a different answer. While some may admit New Zealand as a society often drinks excessively, the majority will argue as a country we are not worse than any other.

Retired public servant Brian Reed, 79, says the drinking problem today is due to a change in our culture: “Nowadays, people socialise at pubs. In my time, when you went to a pub, you used to have a drink and a game of darts and a game of pool etc. Well, two drinks would be enough.

“But now, there’s nothing else for them to do. They go in the pub and there’s no other games or things going on. The main thing is they’re not dancing like they used to. That was the place where you used to socialise: at clubs – sports clubs – and at dances.”

Barbara Gillespie, 86, a retired secretary, shares Brian’s view that alcohol is a substitute for the lack of activities on offer today: “We used to go to a dance and never see a drink!” she says. “They just don’t now. They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Reed says that despite the availability of alcohol, it wasn’t common to see people drunk, unless it was after the 6 o’clock swill – a ”temporary” wartime measure introduced in 1917, when the last drink was served at six o’clock, encouraging men to drink as much beer as they could before closing time.

“Some of the dances you were able to buy drinks, but you very seldom saw many people in the bar, they were trying to chat some bird up outside, rather than drink, and the birds didn’t drink, anyway. Women, in particular, didn’t drink much, it was more of a male thing to drink in those days.”

THE alcohol available for consumption in New Zealand has not increased like one would expect for a nation with a drinking problem.

The amount of pure alcohol available for consumption in 2008 was 9.5 litres for every New Zealander over the age of 15, the highest it had been since 1994. However, in 1988, it was 10 litres. In 1978, it was 12.1 litres. These are not statistics supporting a “binge drinking” perception.

So why is everyone so quick to say New Zealand today has an alcohol problem?

One reason may be the way our relationship with alcohol has changed in the past two decades. With the introduction of spirit-based, pre-mixed alcoholic drinks, known as RTDs (ready to drink drinks) in the mid-1990s, beer has decreased in popularity. Since 2006, the sale of RTDs has jumped 23 per cent, while the available amount of beer has dropped by almost 10 million litres.

What’s changed, according to Wellington police sergeant Andrew Kowalczyk, is the variety and availability of cheap alcohol. Kowalczyk is in charge of the Police Support Unit – a team that polices Wellington’s night life. A policeman since 1987, Kowalczyk believes the drinking culture is worse than it has ever been.

“Beer, rugby and races. It’s always been there, it’s always been part of our culture. But where you used to sit around, and you’d drink over a jug of beer, and you’d talk about the races, now it’s like, especially the youth, ‘let’s get pissed as quick as possible’, bang bang bang, and it’s the availability, the readiness of alcohol,” he says.

The problem isn’t with the licensed premises and hotels – they understand the repercussions of the law, believes Kowalczyk. The problem is the price of alcohol. Pre-loading, a nicer term for binge-drinking, is a major concern for the police, and one that is exacerbated by the low cost of available alcohol.

“You get a lot of people who instead of going into licensed premises where they have a degree of control on your behaviour and they’ll monitor it, you’ve got people who’ll sit there and they’ll skull these syrupy, horrible, artificial drinks, and they’ll consume as much as they can, down their throat.

“And we start dealing with the people making their way into town, people coming into town in van loads, sitting in car parks, sculling back as much as they can. So they’ve got a buzz on, before they hit the bars and drink one beer.”

Hospitality worker Matt Burch, 23, agrees New Zealand young people do binge drink far too often, but it’s just the norm. When asked if he drinks moderately before he goes out, he shakes his head: “That would be ideal, but I don’t have the time, so it involves necking a bottle of cheap wine as quickly as possible.”

The reason for this concerns the view many young people have for binge drinking: “Generally, I finish late, so I wanna be the same level as my peers already in town who had a head start.” People drink because there is a perception that alcohol will provide more fun, he says. “I do go out sober, but I don’t enjoy it as much and it ends up costing me a lot more.”DRUNKEN EMERGENCY: Dr Paul Quigley has adopted a unique screening process at Wellington ED. IMAGE: TVNZ

DOCTOR Paul Quigley has worked at the Emergency Department of Wellington Hospital for eight years, during which the number of patients who are intoxicated when they come in has remained relatively steady.

“People have always drunk, but the extremes of behaviour have got worse,” he says. “Before, the ones who came to ED were just the ones who didn’t have tolerance. It was often just the weaker one who falls over. But now, they intended to get smashed, to get wasted. Now getting drunk is their goal.”

Dr Quigley specialises in emergency medicine and is a clinical toxicologist. His interest in alcohol-related issues has seen the Wellington emergency department adopt a unique screening process for intoxicated patients.

“We have a specific interest in the higher association of injuries and drinking. We have an alcohol injury-focused approach, where the nurses are trained in matters relating to alcohol, what questions to ask, counselling, that sort of thing.”

Patients must fill out a survey and information is offered to anyone who is intoxicated when admitted. A follow-up call is made 48 hours later, where the patients’ answers to the survey are discussed, and possible solutions are offered to those who show signs of alcohol abuse.

Dr Quigley has noticed a new attitude towards alcohol and getting drunk, which has changed the way patients present. Instead of repenting the fact their drinking landed them in hospital, or showing signs of regret or remorse, patients – particularly youth – feel no such thing.

“They’re not embarrassed. It’s very rare. They used to be embarrassed, but now they come in, and especially with the boys, their friends are whooping and yelling like they’ve achieved something. That’s why we wait 48 hours to call. They might just think what they did was a bit stupid, so we give them a call then.”

Youth, in particular, are a major concern for Wellington ED. For patients 18 and under who present after 10pm, the full range of information and alcohol talks are compulsory.

However, despite the common belief New Zealand has a particular problem with teenage drinking, Dr Quigley says that is not the case. “There’s a myth about the age thing. On Friday and Saturday, you have the very young group of 18 and under, but the majority are 18 to 21-year-olds, and nearly all are employed.”

He believes female drinking is a major problem in New Zealand, and accounts for 60 per cent of drunk admissions at Wellington emergency department. He blames it on the equality of the workplace, and the new “masculinity of female drinking.”

“People go out for work drinks, and it’s an even mix of male and female. Men haven’t changed their drink patterns that much. It’s usually beer to start with, then later it might be spirits. But women, who start with wine – already a higher alcohol percentage, and more than a standard unit – then have an earlier conversion to spirits.”

He says the concept of the drinks round is a particular problem: “When you’re doing rounds, and the boys are on 4.5 per cent, and the girls are on 12 per cent, they’re not gonna keep up.”

Sergeant Kowalczyk agrees with this sentiment. He believes female drinking has increased more than male drinking, something that is of great concern to the police.

“What we’re finding is the girls with the binge drinking, getting themselves so wasted that they’re putting themselves at risk. We quite often find girls staggering home by themselves late at night and you think, God. We’ll pick them up and get them home.”

DESPITE what many may think, as a country New Zealand is not leading the pack when it comes to alcohol abuse. We have a moderate attitude to alcohol by international comparison.

In a 2011 World Health Organisation survey, New Zealand was not even in the top 50 countries for alcohol consumption per capita. Moldova tops the list with 18.22 litres consumed per capita, followed by the Czech Republic, Hungary, then Russia. Australia is 44th on the list, while New Zealand is at 51.

Dr Quigley believes Australia and New Zealand have a similar drinking culture, but New Zealand has the advantage of fewer substances available. “We’re lucky, because we don’t do drugs like they do. In New Zealand, all anyone really does is drink. In Australia, it’s alcohol and drugs. The mass drug-taking Australia does doesn’t seem to be here.”

The acting manager for the Wellington Free Ambulance Service, Peter Collins, is another who believes that attitude, especially from young people, has changed since he first started as a paramedic 20 years ago. “Twenty years ago, I could walk into a party and spot the ambulance officers, and people would move aside and allow you to go in. Now, you’re just someone else in a uniform.”TOO MUCH: Wellington Free Ambulance in Action on Courtenay Place. IMAGE: Angie Mills

The Free Ambulance Service is currently discussing the possibility of becoming a permanent fixture in the central city. Last year they established a temporary triage centre in Courtenay Place, in an attempt to relieve pressure on Wellington hospital’s emergency department.

During the 12-week trial, of the 114 cases that were treated, 90 of those were alcohol-related, and 72 of those were people aged 18-25.

Collins believes that there is value in having ambulances and qualified staff based in Courtenay Place during the weekend. “A lot of our work-load pops out on Courtenay Place on a Friday and Saturday night.

A lot of alcohol-related stuff – an increase in falls, an increase in assaults, and just other things that are generally related along those lines.”

Darryl Stonnell has also seen his fair share of drunk people on a Friday and Saturday night.

As managing director of First Contact, a company that supplies bouncers and door staff to many Wellington bars, Stonnell has first-hand experience of assessing intoxication levels of people in town. He believes the level of drunkenness is not as high as it used to be.

After starting his career as a bouncer 26 years ago, Stonnell says the advances in the drink driving legislation has changed the way people drink.

“Today, when you hear drink drivers, it’s like name and shame. It’s not politically correct to do it. When I started, drink driving was right. It’s like, nah, ‘I’ll be fine, man’, and drive home. Now they’ve got all these ads on TV, you know, saying ‘don’t let your mates drive’ and stuff like that. Mates let their mates drive. You never kicked somebody out of the bar for being intoxicated.”

The current Liquor Act prohibits intoxicated people from being on licensed premises, something Stonnell believes has resulted in a decrease of drunk people in bars.  “When I first started doing the job, you never kicked someone out for being intoxicated, you never even thought about saying ‘hey, you shouldn’t drive,’ you’re just being rude if you did that, you know.

“It seemed to be more okay to just let someone drive and kill a family than it was to tell them that they couldn’t drive. Nowadays, the steps being taken against drinking are huge – booze busses, random breath testing, breath testing inside the bars that you can test yourself – all these things are in place that weren’t in place back then.”

The significant drop in the road toll attests to the fact people are not drinking and driving as much as they used to. In 1990, alcohol contributed to 268 deaths and 2716 injuries. In 2000, the number of deaths had decreased to 101, with 1063 injuries. The numbers increased slightly again in 2010, with 121 fatalities, and 1409 injuries.DOOR WORK: Darryl Stonnell has seen a lot of drunks, but doesn’t think NZ is drinking more

Stonnell says that he doesn’t see a large number of under-age people trying to get into bars, and claims the media often perpetuates the myth that New Zealand is full of under-age, out of control drunks.

 “I don’t see the 16-year-olds who are intoxicated. Are they getting drunk at home? Or are we getting a certain level of bravado? Speaking to the cops on Saturday night, they said they’d had about three underage people who were intoxicated. So when you put things in proportion, it’s quite amazing.

“Sevens weekend, they had 40,000 people out having a good time at the stadium and there would’ve been at least another 10 to 15 thousand people at the bars, dressed up, having a good time, and yet I think they had 30 arrests?

“If we just stop at 40,000 people, how many people do you have to get to one per cent? Four hundred people. And there was nowhere near that.

“If you look at the bigger picture of things, the media loves to jump in, and go, ‘oooh, drunk people’. It makes a much neater story to go, ‘oh, so much intoxication’.”

He says an increased focus on alcohol education is responsible for the changing attitude of many young people. While this may help reduce the amount some people drink, Stonnell says that it isn’t just the young people we have to worry about: “Older people are still getting drunk. Because they know better. They’re the worst category.”

He lists three categories he encounters when he is on the door. The 18-25 year olds, who “generally won’t screw with the bouncer”, the 25-40 year olds “who are trying to develop their careers and the last thing they need is to get arrested”, and “then you get the 40-plus age bracket, and they are wankers. They know everything. They believe they can handle their drink.”

There is often a degree of conflict with bouncers and older demographics, who visit the bars populated by people aged, on average, between 18 and 25, he says.

“So you get a young person coming up to a 45-, 50-year-old guy going, ‘oh, I think you’ve had enough to drink’, and he’s going, ‘oh, f**k off’, you know, it’s an incredibly difficult situation to manage. There is an increased level of education around alcohol, but there are certain people you’re never gonna change.”

Stonnell says that at the heart of the matter, alcohol is a drug. “There’s always gonna be the people who go out, get drunk and cause trouble. Alcohol is a legal drug. And while you’ve got that, you’re always gonna have the environment where people will abuse that.

“We need to be educating people on the effects of alcohol. You see far too many rapes and you see far too many people getting beaten up.”

He compares being drunk to acting like a caveman: “That’s what alcohol does. Take away that social buffer, which is what you are when you’re sober, and you expose the cave man. Who just wants to love or fight. Simple as that. Or find food.”


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