Island Life by David Slack

One for the road

A friend of mine often gives up drinking for all of January. He says he sometimes quite fancies the idea of giving up for the other eleven months as well. We were coming through the arrival lounge at Auckland airport the last time we were discussing this. We were solidly hung over, and full of resolve to treat ourselves better. I am under no illusions about the likely order of events next time we meet. Beers will be opened, wine bottles will be emptied, single malts may be drained.

On and on it goes. If you happened to join us at the Great Blend last month, you might have noticed this author celebrating his liberation just minutes previously from book deadline jail by tucking into the refreshing beverages. The following morning I didn’t feel even remotely inclined to the notion of tackling the subject of this blog. It’s high time I did, though. Try this on for size:

Alcohol is not just another consumer product. It is a powerful and potentially toxic psychoactive drug which, when misused, has high social and economic costs for the whole community. Alcohol is the fifth leading cause of death globally (third in ‘western/developed’ nations). In New Zealand, over 1000 deaths are attributed to alcohol every year.

Thus begins the eight point plan for action on alcohol which the New Zealand Drug Foundation presented at a roundtable it organised a couple of months ago in Wellington.

Ross Bell kindly invited a couple of your friends at PA to come along, and I spent a day listening to evidence that slowly but steadily reminded me that this stuff is not at all good for you. When misused. Important phrase that. A qualifier employed both by the people who advocate a high wide and generous approach to its availability and those who think we should be more cautious.

Regrets; I’ve had a few. Hangovers, too numerous to mention. Does that make me a misuser? I haven’t done anyone much harm under the influence. My own body has taken the biggest hits. Minor vehicle mishaps. Broke my nose a couple of times. Liver? Maybe. Brain cells, undoubtedly. I look at the impressive working of our five year old’s mind and I wonder how anyone could be stupid enough to trash such a marvelous piece of equipment with alcohol. That would be me.

And a great many others as well. You should have seen the stats: chastening. You know that liferaft that everyone lunges for – a glass or two of red wine will actually do you good? The researchers had plenty of stories to tell about people using that as an excuse to do a whole lot more drinking.

The bare unalloyed proposition it reduced to was this: pretty much most of the drinking you do does you harm. You just have to decide what you’re going to live with.

I would live my twenties at least some degree differently if I had them over again, knowing what I do now. There was a lot of waste in becoming as wasted as I fairly routinely did. And so did plenty of us. I don’t think we were ever quite immature or anal enough to want to save and count bottle tops or anything like that but some of the things we did were in the same downtown area of the city of A-Bit-Stupid.

But of course this is an adult’s personal choice, eh? This strikes me as the heart of the issue: if you work in the field of health promotion, your aim is to improve the wellbeing of the nation. You tally up the stats and you see that alcohol does untold harm. You conceive strategies to remedy that. What’s not to like?

But once that policy affects people who don’t perceive themselves to pose any kind of harm to the social fabric, they ask you what the hell you’re doing messing with their right to get wasted. Thus that much-employed qualifier: when misused.

What constitutes misuse: drinking when you can’t stop?
Harming others?
Or does it extend as far as harming your own health in the long term?

The roundtable that day had a range of people working in the field. They knew the data, they knew the arguments, they knew the problems.

The group did not include representatives of the liquor industry. That bought a bit of a media scrap, but I don’t think it was a misjudgement. I’ve seen these bunfights when the two sides line up. You just get a sort of World War One exchange of fire from opposing trenches and no one moves. Mental attrition, with breaks for nutrition.

This event – about fifty people – was productive. It identified the extent of the harm, it ran through the strategies that were being employed around the world to reduce that harm, and it came to some conclusions about what policies were worth promoting, and what looked futile.

In a nutshell: the damage is substantial and widespread, the lower the drinking age the younger the age at which the harm shows up, and if you want to do something about it, hardly anything works, with two exceptions; socking people with high prices and prohibiting or limiting advertising.

Around about now, you’re probably thinking: uh huh, room full of wowsers and do-gooders. Not really. There was a not-uncommon theme to aspects of the discussion: how can something so pleasurable be such a problem, and dammit can’t we find a way to have this cake and eat it too?

But you can’t. People do get hurt, and in much larger numbers than you might think, and in ways that even your own responsible drinking self might be surprised to find is not good news for your long term prospects. So when Mr Bell wheeled out the foundation’s eight point plan for action on alcohol, I couldn’t see much in it that didn’t make pretty good sense. Click here and make your own judgment, then raise it with your local election candidate if you’re looking for something interesting to ask at the meeting.

Meanwhile, school holidays are on the way, and we’re out of here. Dad will be making a side trip to Texas to do a little business while the family has fun in California, so if we have any readers in Austin who fancy a Long Neck, the reply button’s right underneath this post. I’ll just be having the one.

PS: Falloon, savage the book or its fearless author and so help me God, the puppy gets it. Roger Kerr is in chapters six and seven saying his piece and being accorded respect for it. What more could you ask?