The level of alcohol drinking in New Zealand does not appear high. Although in 2007–8 85% of people aged 16–64 had drunk alcohol in the past year, almost half of that population (48.1%) drank less than once a week. Fewer than 6% drank every day.
The unusual element was the high incidence of binge drinking. Over 61% of drinkers drank a large amount (six standard drinks for a man or four for a woman) on at least one occasion during the year and 12.6% did so weekly – a higher level than in Australia or the UK.
The population indulging in such binges had certain characteristics:
- Age: those who binged at least once a week tended to be young. About a third of men aged 18–24 did so, but only 10% of those aged 55–64. Older people were less likely to be drinkers at all, but if they did drink they were more likely to do so daily, and more moderately.
- Ethnicity: although a lower proportion of Māori and especially Pacific people were drinkers compared with Europeans, they were inclined to drink a large amount when they did drink. Asian people were light drinkers – only about half drank alcohol at all, and of those, less than 2% binge-drank.
- Gender: in the early 2000s men consumed about 77% of the alcohol, and males, especially young ones, were more likely to binge drink. But women were catching up fast. Almost 19% of women drinkers aged 18–24 binge-drank weekly. Women tended to drink RTDs (ready-to-drinks) or wine while men drank beer.
The evidence suggests two patterns of drinking in New Zealand. One group, especially the young, did not drink every day, but went on a binge at least once a week. With cheap alcohol available in supermarkets and liquor stores, young drinkers often ‘pre-loaded’ before hitting town, or took time out from the bar to ‘side-load’ with bought drinks – either beer or RTDs.
The second group was predominantly older people who drank more regularly, more often wine or spirits, but rarely went on drunken benders.
In 1946 a New Zealander in Nelson approached the American organisation Alcoholics Anonymous and two years later the first group began in Devonport, Auckland. In 2012 there were over 400 groups and 4,000 members of AA in New Zealand. They held weekly meetings, open to anyone – in the Auckland area alone there are over 100 such meetings. With a principle of anonymity, AA used their famous 12-step process to lead individuals towards sobriety.
Social impact of alcohol
During the 20th century the movement to prohibit alcohol entirely in New Zealand slowly weakened, but there were new concerns about the social impact of the drug. In 1976 the Alcohol Liquor Advisory Council (ALAC) was set up to promote moderation in drinking and reduce the harm from alcohol. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Health Promotion Agency.
Few in the 2000s argued for complete prohibition, and there was acknowledgement of the substantial benefits of drinking alcohol. Drinking was accepted as an important social lubricant and an appropriate accompaniment to celebration. Wine was commonly drunk with meals. Drinking enriched family, sporting and cultural occasions.
But there was increasing evidence of the financial and social cost of drinking. These included:
- reduced educational performance
- loss of production through absenteeism and poor performance
- major health consequences in the form of cancers, heart and liver diseases, high blood pressure, foetal alcohol disorder and mental health problems. The Ministry of Health estimated 3.1% of male deaths and 1.4% of female deaths were alcohol-related
- heightened aggression released by alcohol, causing offending and violence
- accidents on the road or involving machinery, and drownings.
In 2008–9 it was estimated that the direct costs of alcohol to government were $500–1,200 million per year.
In 2009 a partnership was formed between leaders of the ‘Notorious’ chapter of the Mongrel Mob and the Salvation Army. The Army provided an intensive seven-week programme to treat alcohol and drug abuse in the gang. After the treatment nine of the 12 members had been alcohol- and drug-free for at least 18 weeks.
In 1984 random breath-testing of drivers for alcohol was introduced and in 1993 compulsory testing of all drivers at checkpoints began. A legal limit of 250 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath (or 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood) applied from 2014 for drivers aged 20 or over (from 2011, nil for those under 20).
In 2010 the Law Commission recommended raising the age for alcohol purchase to 20, reducing opening hours of bars, increasing the tax on and therefore the price of alcohol, and providing local communities with more control over the issuing of licences. New legislation passed in 2012 introduced maximum trading hours and allowed communities to have a say on pricing. The purchasing age and pricing was not changed.
In addition many voluntary groups worked to alleviate the harm caused by alcohol and create a healthy drinking environment.