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O'Connor: Working Together Conference 2005

1 March 2005

Associate Health Minister Damien O'Connor's address to the Working Together conference in Auckland this morning.

Working Together Conference 2005

Kia ora, good morning. Thanks for the welcome Mike. I'd like to echo your comments in welcoming our distinguished overseas guests, Chief Constable John Giffard of the Staffordshire Police and Warwick Bryan Investor Relations Director with Lion Nathan Australia.

I'm looking forward to both presentations. The UK faces many of the same problems we face in New Zealand in terms of alcohol. In other words, it's up against a culture that says it's okay to drink and drink lots.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone so far as to call it “the British disease” and while our Prime Minister hasn't officially diagnosed it, our drinking culture is certainly something this government takes seriously.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have an unsophisticated drinking culture in this country. Alcohol itself is not the problem; it's how we use it. Many of us don’t drink every day, but when we do, we drink to excess.

A recent survey found 450,000 adults had drunk beyond the point of intoxication on their last drinking occasion; 275,000 had deliberately set out to get drunk.

The subsequent costs to society are high and the numbers are big. Economist Brian Easton estimates that alcohol-related harm consumes 8 per cent of the health budget – that's $655million - and 20 per cent of the police budget.

As a government we're committed to reducing these costs and reducing the harm. That's why Cabinet approved the ALAC levy increase last year, to fund a new and comprehensive programme of work to change our drinking culture. I'm sure this theme of culture will be very dominant in the following two days.

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 price. 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, including the industry. Infact, and not without criticism, I'm very interested in the role of the industry in our quest. This seems to trouble those who equate any association with the industry with walking hand in hand with the devil.

I think we need to be realistic. If we want to reduce the alcohol-related harm, we need everyone on board, and that includes the producers and sellers of the product.

Many in the industry have flagged a desire to be responsible and contribute to the programme, and many are instigating activities to support it already, which we welcome. But I would suggest this is just the start and we need and expect an ongoing and deep commitment to get real results.

A good sign that collaboration is possible came in November last year, at a meeting I hosted to outline ALAC's culture change programme. A range of organistions attended, including public health, NGOs and the industry. It was a ground breaking meeting really, in that it bought such a diverse group of people together.

All parties agreed that we've got to tackle dangerous drinking head on, and while there was obviously some debate about how that should be done, there was also a lot of agreement and a clear willingness to work together.

It's been said before, and I agree, that there is no one solution to the problem of binge drinking in New Zealand. A range of associated initiatives is needed before we're going to get anywhere. This is why ALAC's programme of work comprises many elements. One is to ensure consistent enforcement of our liquor licensing, which requires collaboration between police, local government, public health, the alcohol and hospitality industries and the community. And there is progress. By way of example, I'd like to congratulate police for their recent work in the alcohol area. Firstly their crack down on intoxicated people on licensed premises, and also on their new Alcolink project, designed to identify the premises that are serving patrons to a point where they get into trouble with law.

So why this new emphasis on the part of police?

New research has revealed the true link between alcohol and crime. Internationally, alcohol is associated with between 50 and 70 percent of all police work - be it dealing with street fights, criminal damage, family violence, drink-driving, or simply having to take drunk people home or into custody for their own protection.

There's reason to believe the same is true in New Zealand. A recent survey of Wellington city police charge sheets indicated that 90 percent of violent offenders were affected by alcohol.

If we can prevent the intoxication in the first place, there'd be no need for police to spend so many hours picking up the pieces. Although the law says intoxicated people cannot be served on licensed premises, it happens anyway. But it cannot go on. Without consistent enforcement of the law, there's no chance of either the public or the licensees recognising the behaviour as dangerous.
But again, prosecution alone won't change New Zealand’s risky drinking patterns. This requires an attitude change, which I've already acknowledged won’t happen overnight. But bar and licensed restaurant owners, managers and staff can help achieve the change by knowing the law and sticking to it.

I'd like to congratulate ALAC for hosting this important conference, it's a pleasure to be here and I wish you well in your discussions.


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