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Sport and Alcohol Conference 2005

Hon Damien O'Connor
9 February 2005
Speech Notes

Sport and Alcohol Conference 2005

Kia ora good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you very much for the opportunity to speak this evening.

It's a pleasure to be here, and a pleasure to be speaking about something I feel so passionately about; that is the role of alcohol in our every day lives.

I'd like to thank Massey University for instigating and hosting this conference, in particular, the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, and the College of Business. Thank you also to ALAC, the major sponsor, and all other sponsors and supporters.

I'd also like to acknowledge all distinguished speakers and guests, who've taken the time to attend this conference. I'm pleased to see such a wide range of organisations here- public health, non-governmental organisations and the alcohol industry itself. I truly believe we all have a role to play in reducing alcohol-related harm. We're not going to solve the problem overnight, but lets begin the debate.

The relationship between sport and alcohol has been described as many things - necessary, traditional, fundamental, questionable. One thing's agreed on by all however, and that is that the relationship is complex.

The connection between the two is old and strong – prize-winning racecars have long been splashed with champagne and victorious sportsmen have long been soaked with beer… though that's often from the inside out.

It's a funny union when you think about it and a contradiction in terms. An athlete's body is their livelihood - their office desk as it were- but when it comes to alcohol, they're often willing to abuse it.

Sport is about health; alcohol in the wrong quantities is the antithesis. But as incongruous as it may sound, many sports people are big drinkers; some are even notorious for their over-indulgence.

Sportsmen and women work hard, they play hard, they drink hard. Sport spectators are equally adept at imbibing. They work hard, they watch hard, they drink hard. Imagine the 7s without Lion Red, a day at the races without the bubbly.

The link is played up and capitalised on. "Strong, honest, hard working and loyal" may sound like attributes you'd link to an athlete; infact they're the words used in the branding of DB Draught.

Meanwhile Steinlager's catchphrase -Pride, Strength, Commitment, Success - again depicts qualities you'd expect to find on the field, not in the keg.

And we buy into the connection, often unconsciously. You only have to watch Joe Rokocoko glide through defences like they're ghosts and you find yourself thinking: "now that man deserves a DB".

Being the captain of the parliamentary rugby team, I'm not immune to the tradition of a cold beverage after the game. And don't get me wrong, the team takes the game very seriously; I once asked famous first five Winston Peters if he'd been training; with his best billboard grin he said "of course, I've had three salads in the last two weeks".

But as I've said, a drink after the game or the race or the match is part and parcel of playing sport in New Zealand.

Some would say the biggest issue regarding sport and alcohol is that of performance impairment among athletes. But there's a bigger picture to think about. The occasional public drunken behaviour of elite sports people sends a strong message that such behaviour is okay.

To try and break the connection, or to deny alcohol and sport are often actors in the same show, would be unrealistic. But the connection is something we have to take seriously and utilise positively.

Because drinking in the sports environment is a reflection of the wider drinking culture in this country. And that drinking culture is not a very sophisticated one. It's not alcohol that's the problem in New Zealand; it's how we use it. Many of us don't drink every day, but when we do, we drink to excess.

No one disputes that binge drinking is pervasive in New Zealand, and not just among youth. A recent survey found 450,000 adults had drunk beyond the point of intoxication on their last drinking occasion. 275,000 had set out to get drunk on their last drinking occasion. It's not surprising our police and emergency departments end up having hectic weekends of a different kind.

This government is committed to improving these damaging habits. That's why I championed the ALAC levy increase last year, to fund a new and comprehensive programme of work to change the drinking culture.

If we hadn't made the decision to tackle culture, we ran the risk of not doing enough. And not doing enough would have come at too high a cost. As a snapshot, it's estimated that about 1037 deaths in New Zealand in 2000 were attributable to alcohol consumption; that's 3.9 per cent of all deaths.

We don't want to stop people drinking; we just want them to be responsible and aware of the dangers of excessive consumption. The Culture Change Programme is a long-term strategy. It's not a silver bullet that'll solve the problem overnight and we've never painted it as such. Just as the drink driving and the Make it Click campaigns took several years to succeed, so too will this strategy take time to impact.

I for one am very excited about the campaign. We've tried other things in the past to stem the binge-drinking tide, but now it's really time to get to the heart of the problem and do something long-term. I'm confident the Culture Change Programme is the right approach and I'm proud we're taking this bold and leading- edge approach.

The programme recognises that we've all got a role to play in reducing alcohol related harm. This responsibility also extends to sportspeople, especially sporting champions. Their profile is such that they're in a good position to push the moderation message. They are looked up to by New Zealanders both young and old, and their drinking habits can set a benchmark for responsible consumption.

So the challenge must be put to all those who play sport to a) recognise that New Zealand is suffering from a drinking culture that says "it's okay to drink to excess", and b) to help change the face of that culture. Set an example; drink but do it wisely.

I have to say it's been a bit daunting speaking before the debate that's coming up next. I imagine a government Minster's address doesn't come close to drumming up the kind of anticipation that tonight's moot will. "Only men that play with balls have a problem with alcohol". I am tempted to say so many things here, but will refrain myself and instead hand over to Michele to introduce the team.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak tonight. Enjoy your dinner, and the chance to find out once and for all if the ball-less are at equal risk of alcohol harm.


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