Irresponsible drinkers give alcohol a bad name

The New Zealand Herald
6 April, 2016

Some New Zealanders are downright idiots when they drink. From couch burning to drunken brawls to smashing bottles in the streets, there is an ugly side to drinking in New Zealand. Lizzie Marvelly pointed out as much in a recent column, and those who have ventured out on the town after midnight would probably agree.

While some of us choose to share a few wines over dinner, or enjoy a beer after work, others are not so responsible. Whether it is the harm to others through drink driving, violence and destruction of property, drinkers are not the only ones that are affected by their drinking.

But why does condemning bad - and often unlawful - behaviour have to involve condemning alcohol at the same time?

After all, alcohol isn't all bad in itself. In fact, sometimes it can be rather good. There are even health benefits to be enjoyed from light or moderate drinking (yes, I know this point has been debated by academics, but there's enough robust and convincing evidence to confirm this).

There are social benefits too. As a social lubricant, in the right settings, alcohol can even strengthen relationships. Bonding over alcohol can develop trust between colleagues, which may explain its part in business cultures the world over.The oft-cited illnesses and fatal diseases caused by alcohol occur mainly among heavy drinkers.

Let's face it, alcohol is probably also the reason why at least a few happy and long-lasting marriages blossomed in the first place. The point here is not that you need to get drunk to be rich or fall in love, it is that all this focus on why alcohol is bad misses the tangible and intangible benefits that could explain why we drink in the first place.

Surely that's better than painting alcohol as simply inconspicuous bottles of cancer. Yes, alcohol is a known carcinogen. But here are some other known carcinogens that fall within the same class: birth control pills, sunlight, processed meats, salted fish and wood dust. Basically, being classed as a carcinogen just means the risk is greater than zero. It does not mean that alcohol is necessarily cancer-causing, and it certainly does not indicate that alcohol is cancer-causing in small doses.

So the problem is not alcohol, when it is consumed responsibly. What needs to be addressed are the situations where drunk people harm others. But how?

I would start with the obvious: stop labelling irresponsible drinking as part of our culture. It is time to start calling out bad behaviour out for what it is: anti-social and abnormal.

In New Zealand, and some (not all) other countries, alcohol is correlated with violence. But at the risk of sounding like a stage one statistics lecturer, that is not the same as causation.

Science has yet to find that there is anything special about alcohol alone that causes the average Joe to turn into the Hulk. If there was, then drinking and violence would be as equally associated with housewives in Howick as young males. And it would happen at any event where alcohol is served, from weddings to funerals, to watching The Bachelor at home with your mates.

Rather, anti-social drinking is associated with cultures that believe alcohol to be transformational.

It is hard to argue with the belief that regulations should keep people safe from the harm of others. But rather than blame everyone - bar owners, alcohol companies, liquor stores, and the police - why not shift even a bit of the blame back on to the perpetrator?

It is clear a lot of New Zealanders are sick of violent and destructive drinkers. It is also clear that some of us - the quieter and less visible part of the population - can enjoy a good tipple without punching the first stranger who looks at us funny.

There are already laws against harming others and their property (drunk or not), and laws against serving intoxicated people. Rather than bringing in new regulation that punishes the responsible and irresponsible alike, surely the first step is enforcing the regulation we already have.

And just for the record, science has yet to prove that alcohol makes you funnier, more attractive, or good at pool either.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates