14 December 2020
Opinion as featured in the New Zealand Herald
Christmas is a great time of year. Whānau come together, the weather is good (most of the time) and as a country we can sit back, relax, and take a well-deserved break.
And for many of us, this might involve having a drink to two.
The social benefits of drinking are well known – it can help you feel relaxed and make those awkward family situations well…less awkward.
But we also need to understand that alcohol is a drug.
When we have a drink, the ethanol contained in the alcohol is quickly absorbed into our blood stream. It only takes a few minutes for it to reach your brain, where it alters your mood and can give you a temporary sense of euphoria.
It does this by triggering the release of dopamine - a chemical messenger that makes you feel pleasure.
But like any drug, when we indulge too much, the negatives will quickly outweigh the benefits.
Hence the dreaded Christmas or New Year’s hangover.
Worse, alcohol can act as a depressant and impair your judgement – leading you to making bad decisions.
While having a few drinks over Christmas might seem like no big deal, for some, our drinking habits are causing us lasting harm.
Unfortunately, as a country, we are drinking far too much and far too often – we’re suffering from a collective national hangover.
In fact, statistics show about one in four Kiwis drink hazardously, which means that they are drinking in ways that can harm themselves or others.
Hazardous drinking can lead to long term health problems, including various cancers, liver damage, mental health issues and sexual disfunction. In fact, up to 1,000 Kiwis die every year from alcohol related causes.
Despite this, drinking remains firmly ingrained in our culture. Ask any non-drinker – the pressure to drink in social settings is immense and is often an uncomfortable experience.
The reality is alcohol is everywhere. It’s in our supermarkets, it’s advertised on our sport fields, and promoted on our television screens.
And it’s harming our communities. We just need to look at the role alcohol plays in our appalling crime, road, mental health, and family violence statistics.
Ask any doctor and they’ll talk about their local A&E being like a war zone on a Saturday night as they treat a never-ending stream of alcohol related injuries.
And unlike other countries, the situation is getting worse.
According to the medical journal, The Lancet¸ per capital alcohol consumption in New Zealand is predicted to increase over the next decade. Compare this with Australia and the UK, where rates are forecast to fall!
As a country, it’s time we were honest. Aotearoa has a drinking problem and it’s time we did something about it.
This means having the courage to have the hard conversations about alcohol availability and the harm it is causing to ourselves, our friends and our whānau.
We know that we can do something about it because we have done it before.
Since 1976, smoking rates have fallen from 36% to 13%. We’ve done this through smart and coordinated policy interventions – such as price controls, limits on sponsorship and advertising and supporting people to quit.
We need to be adopting a similar approach with alcohol in New Zealand.
Bold action is required. As a first step, Government could look at adopting and reporting against the World Health Organisation’s goal of reducing harmful use of alcohol by at least 10% by 2025.
This will not be easy, and to achieve this target we will need to do things differently.
A useful starting point is the Law Commission’s sweeping report Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm, which recommended, among other things price controls, tighter regulation of sponsorship and advertising and giving local communities a greater say about how alcohol is sold in their community.
These recommendations wouldn’t put us out of step with what other countries are doing.
Returning to Aotearoa after visiting Sydney and living in Boston, I was genuinely surprised to find how cheap alcohol was in this country and how easily available it was day and night.
Driving around the suburbs, I’m always struck by the number of small liquor stores operating – particularly in our more vulnerable communities. We do not need so many liquor stores on street corners. We know that if we limit the supply of alcohol, we can reduce demand and reduce harm.
You don’t see this in Australia, where the sale of alcohol is much more tightly regulated. In fact, you can’t even buy alcohol in many Australian supermarkets.
It is time we seriously consider restricting alcohol availability and strengthening marketing and sponsorship laws to stop glamourising alcohol consumption.
This isn’t about being the fun police. It is about treating alcohol for what it is – a drug – and focussing our efforts on reducing the harm it is causing in our communities.
And yes, we should all feel free to enjoy a drink this Christmas season, but do it safely and in moderation.
Avoid pre-loading and binge drinking, and make sure you enjoy a couple alcohol-free days every week. If you are hosting a party, make sure you serve plenty of food and always offer alcohol-free alternatives.
While alcohol may help us have a good time, unfortunately too often it is doing the opposite.
And if you are worried about your drinking, never be afraid to seek help. Talk to your GP or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797 or text 8681 for free and confidential advice.
Dr Mataroria Lyndon is Co-Founder and Clinical Director for Tend, a digital first primary healthcare service that allows you to talk to a GP through your smartphone.