Renewed calls to raise drinking age

An on going debate in New Zealand about what the drinking age should be has flared up again. Renewed calls from paramedics and others suggesting that the drinking age is too low have surfaced after a spate of incidents. But as we shall see, they ignore a problem that is as old as the existence of a legal drinking age.

The calls are coming after a Coroner suggested that the age should be raised back to 20 years, where it was up to the end of 1999.

This ignores an age old issue that was true even when I was at high school in 1999. Teenagers see alcohol as cool and until and unless that perception changes, minors will continue trying to find ways to get alcohol. They will get older family members or friends who are of legal age to do it for them. They will continue trying to slip into bars and night clubs that are not permitted to have them on their premises. These social pressures and dares are just quite simply something that happens. I was offered alcohol by mates when I was under age. I went to parties where there was alcohol present – I did not drink any except under parental supervision because my hypertension means I am on medication, which at the time I was concerned would react badly with it.

When I went to my Year 13 high school ball I had drinks at a mates place, along with about 14 others who were also going. Then the age to be consuming alcohol was still 20.

There are other things that can be done which would be more effective (all of which I have argued the case for in prior articles):

  1. Removing alcohol from supermarkets and restricting it to alcohol stores and licenced cafes, bars and restaurants
  2. Removing advertising from the media – can only be displayed on premises
  3. Tighten the penalties for non compliance

Of the sad case of Matthew Kyte who drove drunk on a regular basis, just like the man who was recently in court for his 12th drunk driving charge and who had killed 4 people, here is a guy who should have had his licence permanently revoked. The Police said of the case that Mr Kyte would have been potentially charged with murder had he hit two people who he narrowly missed on his last drunken drive.

Intoxicated crowds also seem to be becoming a problem at accidents. In the last few years there have been numerous instances of police, paramedics and fire fighters being abused by drunken crowds at parties where things have gone wrong. Some of the cases have involved violence, whilst others have involved items being thrown at the emergency services, who have had to call up Police to deal with the trouble makers.

But none of this will be fixed by changing the drinking age. Ones age is a bit different from ones intelligence quotient, or more specifically here, ones maturity quotient.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Alcohol consumption

I was in Belgium on my recently completed trip I was fortunate enough to try some of their superb craft beer. Belgium has a well established reputation for craft beer – indeed on a canal boat trip I did with my parents in Brugge, the guide/driver pointed out a place which he said has over 1400 craft beers in it. We initially thought he was joking, but I will let you make you minds up after you look at the photo below (it was considerably longer than this):

The author and the beer wall (part of it) in Brugge, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

This and other experiences with alcohol culture in Belgium and other countries around Europe got me thinking about how and why New Zealanders behave in the way they do with alcohol. Is there any way to make New Zealanders drink more responsibly without taking away the pleasure of a beer or wine? Is there a way of having a good time without filling up Accident and Emergency Departments in our hospitals or waking up the following day wishing one had never had that extra round (vomited all over the floor, smashed something, started a fight or other totally improper conduct)?

Belgian craft beer is not weak in alcohol. One might think it does not taste so, but very often I was drinking beers with 8.0-10.0% alcohol. They would be served in 330ml or 500ml glasses. At no point in the trip did I have more than two rounds at a given location and all were accompanied by food or food was consumed prior to alcohol consumption.

I noticed some key differences about the conduct of Europeans around it. I did not not note any seriously drunken behaviour. There were to be sure some loud conversations going on, but a few of the places I had beers at did have acoustic set ups that made things seem louder than they probably were. But I never saw any fights, uncivilized behaviour or police officers arresting anyone.

In many places people would come in, perhaps by bike or on foot, they would order a round and have it. Many would go after just one round. A few would stick around for more. Food was readily available. These establishments would even on Friday generally be shut by 2200-2300, though they were open right through the day.

I did some research. In Belgium 0.05 milligrams of alcohol per millilitre of blood is the limit. Bus drivers and truck drivers, fee paying passenger services – taxi’s, limousines with chauffeurs – have to abide by a 0.2 milligram limit. Compare that with the limits in New Zealand: 0.05 milligrams per 100ml of blood/250 micrograms per litre of breath.

Alcohol limits across the European Union vary considerably. From 0.08 milligrams of alcohol per litre of blood in the United Kingdom, to zero in the Czech Republic and Slovenia (zero generally being interpreted as below detection levels). So do the attendant rules around driver types – some countries set professional drivers (which I take to mean truck, emergency services, etc)low limits such as 0.02 and others make it an offence to drive with any alcohol on board.

Of the wider alcohol problem in New Zealand, I thought about that too. Supermarkets are currently able to sell alcohol. In Europe I saw wine and beer being available in places like service stations, which were more like small scale supermarkets or suprettes. I think that is too liberal and that alcohol should be restricted to alcohol stores, which rigorously enforce the 18+ law. That will take away some of the marketing in front of youths. It will not solve all of the problems with drunkenness, but that was likely to require a societal shift in attitudes anyway.


Addressing our alcohol problem

Saturday night in an Accident and Emergency ward cannot be a pleasant time. People who have had accidents, drunks or people off their heads on drugs, many with children. Some will be volatile and angry. Others will be too badly hurt to be of much use.

Spare a thought for the doctors and the nurses on that night, or any other busy night. Spare a thought for the businesses having to clean up after a night of drunken mayhem the bottles and the vomit and any damage that might have occurred on or near their premises. It is all too common isn’t it?

You might be tempted to blame the bars. On occasion you will be justified as there will always be a bar or restaurant or two that fail to carry out good host behaviour and need a reminder by way of a fine or a visit from the blue arm of the law. It would – for example – be embarrassing to have to close because the kitchen hand has gone home and there is no food available from the bar, but that is the law. The very vast majority though take their roles seriously and look to spot and deal with any inappropriate behaviour before it can escalate.

So in the blame game who does one turn on next? Do you turn on the councils that make the bylaws? Perhaps, but before we look at them, perhaps let us look at where people are buying alcohol from and what they are doing with it. For some drinking at a bar is considered pricey and they buy alcohol in bulk from the liquor stores. A 15 pack of beer will set you back $19. With a couple of mates, you load up with alcohol and then you decide to head for town to continue partying and get more alcohol on board. “Get wasted” was the expression commonly used when I was at University.

But in councils across New Zealand we are seeing a tendency to introduce bylaws that punish the wrong people who comply with the law and the instructions of bar staff. We are tending to see a fear of upsetting authorities amongst the people who introduce these laws of the hospitality sector, which employs so many people and gives an outlet for a bit of socializing. I feel that the issue is generally not the bars, but the availability of alcohol outside of these premises – do we really need wine and beer week for example at Pak N Save? Do we really need two supermarkets and four bars all within 400 metres of each other? You can find such a situation in Papanui, Christchurch. That is almost a sort of saturation level in terms of availability.

I believe there are only two places that should be allowed to sell alcohol:

  1. Bars/restaurants/etc
  2. Liquor stores/boutique beer/wine/whiskey stores etc

Hear the outrage emanating from supermarkets, where wine and beer will no longer be able to be sold were my suggestions to ever take hold. Although all of them by law require people under 25 to present ID, that has not stopped the odd person who is not of legal age slipping through the net. Thus many supermarkets now have their check out counters set to require a supervisor to come and clear the product being purchased when it is swiped past the infrared scanner.

I think one reason why we have drunken youths getting into trouble is their exposure to alcohol every time they visit a supermarket. It is a socially cool thing to do – to drink alcohol at parties if you are a underage person and there is a lot of peer pressure from your mates and fellow students to do so. None of which necessarily makes it right. On televisions, in the newspapers, on the radio and internet, supermarkets are able to advertize alcohol.

Since alcohol stores cannot sell to minors, theoretically the only people who will be in the stores are those of legal age intending to purchase alcohol. All well and good, but like supermarkets, the bars and so forth, even liquor stores have the odd incident where someone who is not of legal age slips through.

But if the advertizing is not in front of the eyes of the vulnerable underage bracket who are so impressionable, will they talk about it among mates? And if the supermarkets they are often in looking for chocolates or confectionary after school or helping Mum and Dad with the shopping, no longer stock alcohol in front of their faces, the temptation to see if they can slip a bottle through the check outs without their age being noticed is no longer there.

So maybe the answer to the question “who should be allowed to sell alcohol” is “not supermarkets”.

Sounds good to me.

To raise or to lower the drinking age?

In 1999, during the dying days of the National-led Government of former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley announced that the minimum drinking age of New Zealanders would be lowered. At that time it was 20 for the purchase of alcohol from stores and 18 for those going to the pub with parents for a drink.

Many of my fellow students at Burnside High were ecstatic. But there were also several – myself included – who did not agree with the lowering of the age. One of the others who disagreed with the announcement said at the time that she could see major problems with youths drinking to excess, drunken violence, mixing it with drugs. She was right then, and nearly 20 years later, I think she is definitely right now about the problems it would cause.

Doctors working in Accident and Emergency Departments all over New Zealand, and at medical centres would agree that there is a major problem with how we drunk then. They would still agree today that there is a major drinking problem in New Zealand. The drunken louts who come in, completely smashed from altercations that were powered by too much alcohol on board, assaults, disorderly behaviour and so forth are probably no different from the ones that were seen with trepidation by doctors in the years before the drinking age was lowered. I can sympathize with them about the problem, but I think it is how we are drinking that is the problem; how we perceive drinking and how the role of media advertising are the issues that need to be addressed.

My opposition was simpler. I simply didn’t think there was any real case for lowering it, and that the Government was just doing it to attract youth votes in the knowledge it was probably going to – and did – lose the general election.

Do we need as is the case in Papanui, Christchurch, three bars (Rose and Thistle, West Coast Tavern and The Phoenix)and two supermarkets all within five minutes walk of each other? I am not sure that we do. Especially since the supermarkets undercut by the simple nature of their business and their competitors, the incomes of the licenced establishments by selling beer and wine at prices that bars and restaurants would struggle to match.

People say that criminal violence will target alcohol stores if there were steps to reduce the availability of alcohol. I disagree. Amend the law to enable 5 or 10 year bans from licenced stores selling alcohol and similar for bars; a 3 strikes law for stores that do not comply with age vetting with instant loss of licence after the third strike and a requirement that photos of minors or others committing offences in the store premises be displayed in a prominent place.

But also there needs to be better education. Since alcohol is commonly drunk by teens long before they reach age 18, drug, alcohol and sex education should be compulsory in Year 10 Social Studies and legal studies or an equivalent course in civics should be taken in place of one of the option subjects in Year 12.

So, it is with cautious approval that I note the policy of The Opportunities Party to tackle our drinking problem. How much public support New Zealand’s newest political party gets for its policy though will be decided on election day.


Growing societal pains pressuring New Zealand justice system

It is quite fair to say that the New Zealand sentencing laws have multiple flaws to them that undermine not only the course of justice, but in some respects actually cause new injustices to occur. The cracks in the social net designed to keep people out of crime are so numerous that systemic failure is a real possibility and would occur when a critical mass of issues comes to a head causing a large scale collapse of services and functions.

Among these problems are:

  • A failing of the socio-economic conditions necessary to discourage criminal activity in the first place
  • A failure of the justice system to punish convicted offenders appropriately
  • Offenders occur because it suits the lifestyle that they have become accustomed to
  • Massive growth in the market for illegal substances – a seller can make $4,000 a week selling illegal substances in Whangarei
  • Break down of the family unit and a lack of role models for boys
  • Underfunding/scrapping of social welfare programmes causing them to fail or be wound up
  • Systemic underfunding and resourcing of the mental health sector

So how do these factors cause the sentencing regime to fail? There are numerous reasons.

  1. Whilst most New Zealanders are working, tax paying, law abiding people, there is a section of society that have no empathy with or understanding of societal norms. They come from broken families that have no had proper jobs, or have been involved with drugs or criminal elements – to them the law and the people who enforce it are suspect
  2. Despite legislation passing through Parliament in 2010 called the Truth in Sentencing Act, which was designed to make offenders do the full sentence handed down, sentences are becoming increasingly erratic and are rarely suitable for the crime/s committed
  3. It is obvious that the War on Drug has failed when drug dealers can make more money in a week than many New Zealanders do in a month – flow on effects from drug use can include being not suitable for a wide range of jobs
  4. A lack of role models for children with absentee parents or from a family where education and work are low priorities. They might be constantly working, or disinterested in their children’s development
  5. Welfare programmes have suffered from funding not keeping pace with inflation, but also constantly tightened criteria to eligible for assistance in the first place, with the result being more people are either getting cut off or finding the proverbial goal posts have shifted
  6. Mental health issues create highly unstable people whose symptoms may range from acute stress to being prone to physical violence or even killing – several cases have occurred in the last few years where either people not being treated have turned violent; caregiver gone to jail for mercy killing

New Zealand is going to have to address these issues collectively and individually in the near future or risk this nation becoming something other than the tourist friendly paradise many non New Zealanders believe us to be. Soon there could be significant costs to tax payers and companies alike fixing a problem that in some respects everyone is partially to blame for, but which nobody wants to come up with a comprehensive solution.