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If 'tis the season to be
jolly, 'tis also the season for reminders of the dangers alcohol presents. This
week the Herald features a series on the trends and effects of drinking in our
society. In some ways we have been improving but we are still a long way from
entrenching a culture of moderation. That message is heard constantly, but how
many ever take it to heart and alter their habits?
Drinking in moderation means learning to stop when the party is in full swing.
For those driving, of course, it means drinking no more than a glass or two, but
even those not intending to drive must learn how much is enough if we are to
generate a healthier attitude throughout society to a drug that features in so
much crime and misfortune.
As our series reports this morning, 35 per cent of injured patients who came
into the Auckland Hospital emergency department during December 2000 had been
drinking. The criminal courts hear alcohol blamed for a continual parade of
violence and stupidity. Much of it results from "binge drinking", which the
Weekend Herald traced to the earliest roots of our colonial history.
But 35 years after the extension of licensing hours it is becoming harder to
blame the heritage of the "6 o'clock swill" for the way too many men,
particularly young men, drink today. And not only men. Young women these days
have caught the habit.
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Everyone, young and old, needs powerful messages to counter the notion that
unlimited drinking is somehow stylish. They probably need to see themselves in a
drunken state. Most people who drink too much are surprised when somebody tells
them so. Under the influence they imagine they are urbane, witty, splendid
company and, of course, that they can hold their liquor.
The truth, they should be told later, is that they were none of those things;
the truth is they turned themselves into shambling, slack-jawed oafs.
Drunkenness, they need to realise, deserves the worst term of approbation in the
language of youth: drunkenness is boring.
It is several years now since the legal drinking age was lowered to 18, and
since spirit mixtures aimed at teenagers came on the market. Opponents of the
age reduction say it has not improved drinking behaviour among the young and has
merely made alcohol available to an even younger group just under the legal
purchasing age. But any reversal of law would be pointless. Teenagers were binge
drinking in parks and on beaches before the law permitted them into licensed
Alcohol is part of human life and has been produced in some form in most
cultures since time immemorial. It is best controlled by unwritten codes of
acceptable behaviour rather than laws that limit the rights of the sensible as
well as the abuser.
These days the codes of behaviour can be underwritten with health warnings.
Alcohol, we report today, is the first suspect in disorders of the liver and
heavy drinkers are also at greater than average risk of heart disease, breast
cancer, anxiety and depression. Last year the effects of alcohol were estimated
to cost the public health system $655 million a year.
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The Alcohol Advisory Council estimates that deaths from liquor consumption cost
the country $5.5 billion annually in lost production and taxes, while
alcohol-related injuries cost $6.6 billion. But the liquor trade, of course,
pays more than the usual taxes. Like tobacco and petrol, alcohol carries a
special excise to reflect the social and environmental costs of its use. Much as
the trade resents the special treatment, its total taxation contributes $600
million a year, not enough to cover the estimated public health bill alone.
The best way to start spreading a culture of moderation may be simply to decide
here and now that drunkenness will no longer be treated as a joke. When someone
regales you with his or her exploits while under the weather this festive
season, don't force a laugh. Let's be honest; it's not funny.