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Some very interesting new survey data on New Zealanders’ drinking habits were released last month to surprisingly little fanfare. The lack of media attention – in marked contrast to the massive coverage of our nation’s drinking problem during the Alcohol Reform Bill debate – did not pass without remark from Hospitality NZ, who opined a conspiracy of silence was at hand. Regardless, the findings are worth a closer examination to assess whether this country really is turning things around.
Data from the latest National Health Survey indicate very positive shifts in hazardous drinking patterns, especially among younger New Zealanders.
Overall consumption was down from 84 percent of the population drinking in the past year (2006/07 survey) to 80 percent (2011/12).
Hazardous drinking rates for males have fallen from 30 to 26 percent, but were virtually unchanged for women at 13 percent. People aged 18-24 years (particularly men) remain at higher risk of hazardous drinking. However, the rate of hazardous drinking has decreased significantly in past year drinkers in this age group from 49 to 36 percent.
Releasing the research, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne described these as “encouraging results.” We agree. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, especially when we come to unpicking what might be driving the change.
Are we all ‘easing up on the drink’ thanks to the determined work of the Health Promotion Agency? Or was the high level of the public’s political engagement in the alcohol law reform process the wake-up call we needed to start questioning our drinking habits? Maybe and perhaps.
Or was it the economy, Stupid?
International research suggests drinking decreases during recessions as incomes shrink and people tighten their belts. That’s a neat explanation for the changes in consumption here, especially considering our level of youth unemployment. But the same research also suggests that, while total consumption may decline, hazardous drinking increases; and that isn’t reflected in our new data.
Whatever factors are at play (and we sincerely hope the recent alcohol law reform will accelerate these positive shifts), we also share Minister Dunne’s caution that the changes need also to be reflected in future surveys before we start popping any corks.
Finally, I would like to personally invite you to attend our 2013 International Drug Policy Symposium. We’re taking a good look at all things related to cannabis and health in our “Through the maze” biennial, with a special examination of what has changed in the years since our last cannabis conference in 1993. What does evidence now tell us, what interventions do we have, and how should our laws respond?
Please register now – we may not do this again for another 20 years!