Hard News by Russell Brown


Mo' Indexing

Reading the news, a person could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand had the world's second-highest rate of cocaine use. Hardly. Zealand was second for lifetime incidence of cocaine use amongst the 17 countries covered in Toward a Global View of Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis, and Cocaine Use: Findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys.

But our cumulative lifetime incidence of 4.3% for cocaine is not only far behind the US (16.2%), but well behind the rate for countries not included in the WHO survey, but for which good data exist. Britain, for example, and Italy and Spain.

Cannabis is a different matter: we're genuinely right up there: behind, again, the home of the War on Drugs, which leads the survey in substance abuse. The Netherlands, whose liberal drug policies attract the ire of the prohibitionists, has less than half the lifetime incidence of cannabis use of the US, and one eighth the rate of cocaine use.

As the authors put it: "countries with more stringent policies towards illegal drug use did not have lower levels of such drug use than countries with more liberal policies."

Other points of interest: rates of lifetime use of tobacco and cannabis in New Zealand are converging (51% vs 42%); use of all the drugs covered in the survey was linked to higher personal income everywhere; drug use is increasing everywhere; and, at 12,790 the New Zealand sample for the survey was far and away the largest for any of the 17 countries -- does anyone know why this is?

This is the kind of turf we're covering in Media7 tonight, Freeviewers. I'll link to the online video tomorrow morning.

And one thing that didn't make it into the show but popped out of the research: the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs has advised that another substance be added to Schedule 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Act -- the slot formerly occupied by BZP.

That being salvia divinorum, the special-interest psychedelic herb that has been sold unrestricted in New Zealand for several years now. Assuming Schedule 4 isn't simply being used as a holding pen for prohibition, this is a good thing; especially now that the MoH finally has some proper guidelines ready: the most important of which is presumably an R18 restriction on sales.

All bets are off, of course, under a National government. Whatever people think of Anderton, he does listen to evidence. I don't think the same can be said of National's would-be drug tsar, Jacqui Dean.


And to another kind of index altogether: the Atlas of Socioeconomic Deprivation in New Zealand, which visualises Statistics New Zealand's index of socioeconomic deprivation.

There a smaller versions of the maps on the Herald site, and large PDFs at the MoH page for the Atlas.

There are some fairly obvious quirks (how do you measure the socio-economic status of Mechanics Bay, where no one lives?), but the maps show Counties Manukau to be a more variegated place than Michael Laws (or Bill Ralston, who should know better) would have us believe.

Just as interesting as the maps are the researchers' notes, which warn against mistaking measurements for underlying reality, and then very frankly state:

The NZDep projects are, of course, not value-neutral. NZDep is informed by a public health action philosophy, incorporating, among other things, a commitment to a fair distribution of society’s benefits and wealth and community mobilisation as a means of achieving social change. NZDep was created by health researchers with three specific purposes in mind: for use in resource allocation formulas; as a tool for community groups to advocate on behalf of their constituencies; and as a research tool. In short, it was created as a tool for public health action. It is in this respect that this edition of the atlas adopts DHBs as the mapping framework, but by including the data CD we implicitly recognise there is more than ‘one deprivation landscape’, so empowering users to explore alternative deprivation geographies.

An important, and perhaps more covert, aim of the maps was to introduce into policy and planning an easy way for people to see inequalities – to make more visible the socioeconomic divisions that characterise our society. Insofar as the maps have the capacity to shape people’s understanding of our social fabric, they are intended to challenge policy makers and planners to see afresh the divisions in our socioeconomic landscape, and to ‘de­ normalise’ our sometimes uncritical acceptance of these divisions. The most important inequalities have, in many respects, become so familiar to us that they are invisible. They have become normal features of our social landscape, and as such often fail to register. Our social radar screens are attuned to picking up abnormalities.

However, as is clearly illustrated in publications such as - Hauora: Maori Standards of Health IV (Robson and Harris 2007), inequalities are not abnormal in New Zealand; rather they are an aspect of the national landscape that we live with and, for the most part, tolerate.

Take that!

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