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Addressing Alcohol Harm - Taking the Lead

Hon Damien O'Connor
Addressing Alcohol Harm - Taking the Lead

Tena kotou, tena kotou, tena kotou katoa

Good afternoon.

The New Zealand parliament has been passing and amending alcohol laws since 1842.

If only these walls could talk, this room would be filled with the voices of hundreds of past representatives debating liquor laws.

In fact, a history of liquor laws is probably one of the best barometers of the social issues that have preoccupied New Zealanders over the last 160 years.

We've had prohibition, temperance, restrictions on drinking and dancing and on whether Maori can be sold alcohol, more licences, less licences, and on it goes.

The amendments to the Sale of Liquor Act currently before Select Committee are a case in point.

On the one hand, a proposed amendment allowing liquor to be served in vineyards on Easter Sunday reflects the way we now consume alcohol as part of a wider tourism, food-related experience.

But the proposed amendments also reflect the community's concerns for the health and safety of its young people, who are drinking often and heavily. Under the amendment, police will be exempt from legal liability relating to Controlled Purchase Operations, allowing them to implement current laws without fear of challenge.

So, there's a long and varied history to the role that Parliament plays in New Zealanders having a drink. Because the role of alcohol in our society is still an issue which is debated and discussed, Parliament remains a very appropriate place for ALAC to present it's Year in Review and for us to discuss how we can all play a part in limiting alcohol harms in New Zealand.

So welcome. It's my pleasure to host this function and celebrate the end of a big year for ALAC. And to all of you who work with ALAC in its mission to moderate harm, your role is very welcome also.

I have to say that when I saw the RSVP list for today's function, I was impressed at how many of you were able and eager to come to an end of year function that included an hour of speeches!

I'd like to think it's because of our reputations as captivating and entertaining speakers. But somehow I doubt this.

Actually, what impresses me more is the fact that you are clearly dedicated to the issues that we are canvassing today.

Let me say that ALAC has a difficult task. The ALAC Council operates in a tricky environment, in which its message must compete with many other social issues. Risky drinking is just one of a number of health issues that are lining up for the attention of the New Zealand public.

We've just had the Ministry of Health's excellent National Health Survey that identified one in six New Zealanders drinks in a hazardous way. But again, this was just one of a number of health issues that the survey identified.

In my delegated areas, I tend to be associated with what could be considered do-gooder roles. As Associate Minister of Health I am concerned about smoking and alcohol-related harms.

I also have an interest in limiting the harms associated with gambling; harms that have implications in my role as Minister for Racing.

There's also the fact that New Zealand's history of prohibition, temperance and accusations of wowser-ism tends to attach to anyone who wants to talk about the issue of drinking moderately.

In another 100 years time, people will look back on today's parliamentary preoccupations with the social effects of alcohol and note that we were very concerned about the harms associated with young people drinking.

But the fact is, it's a very valid concern.

We know that there's a significant number of New Zealanders who are, by definition, risky drinkers - many of them young people. We know that young people are accessing alcohol with ease and, perhaps more importantly, we know that it is often adults supplying them.

But there are also a significant number of adults who are risky drinkers.

A lot more is known about the health risks that result from intoxication than was known 10 or 20 years ago, and we have a responsibility to share this knowledge with the public.

The challenge is to promote the need to drink moderately, without appearing to be taking the fun out of New Zealand life.

It's a challenge that I'm optimistic we can address together.

Alcohol is part of our culture, and, to a degree, that's fine. What concerns me is that risky drinking - the blow out, getting rat faced and going on a bender - are also part of our culture.

There are good and ugly sides to drinking. And let's be honest - the head down the toilet bowl at midnight is an outcome for too many young New Zealanders on a Friday night and sometimes they don't make the toilet by the state of footpaths on Saturday mornings.

We all have a role to play in helping change the perception of alcohol in our culture. It's not enough to see that the boys don't drive home drunk after a night out. We don't want to see them drunk at all.

Some of you - I can't imagine who - might not realise that I come from the West Coast.

We have a very close affiliation with a certain brand of ales there.

In fact, I passed up the opportunity to be at the awards of the Monteiths Wild Food Challenge tonight to be with you. And I'm sorry not to be there, because I believe Monteiths should be praised. It is a brand promoting a positive change in the industry's culture. Rather than promoting blatant beer swilling, Monteiths encourages quality beer and food combinations. It makes drinking about enjoyment, not over-indulgence, and it makes good business sense also.

Drinking is seen by New Zealanders as a kind of reward for working hard. And sure, hard working New Zealanders deserve rewards.

But life's too short to wake up on a Saturday morning with a hangover and not be able to take your kids to soccer. Or to be unable to read that bedtime story because you're still in the pub or not capable of stringing a sentence together.

These might seem like small harms, but I can tell you, as a parent who is often separated from family by the demands of Parliament; I wouldn't give up another minute from my kids through drinking too much.

I also want parents to think hard about how their kids view their drinking behaviours and about what messages their kids are getting about what it means to be an adult.

This leads me to the observation that how young people drink is not necessarily that different to the way older people drink. The only major difference is that young people get intoxicated in public, whereas we can get intoxicated at home.

This summer, my challenge to parents, community leaders and my parliamentary colleagues, is to take a good look at our own drinking behaviours before we talk to teenagers about moderation.

It's a bit hard to say it's okay for me when it's not okay for you.

What I want us to do is to take the lead in addressing the uglier side of New Zealand drinking culture.

If you have drinks at your work this Christmas, apply the host responsibility rules and provide food and non-alcoholic drinks to ensure that it's easy for people to avoid heavy drinking.

I am encouraged to hear that ALAC has worked with NZ Post to evaluate an employee intervention scheme that, if successful, will be taken to other workplaces to help those employees who want to drink less to do so.

Those of you in the health sector, I note the good work that you have been doing and I encourage you to continue to make the issue of addressing alcohol harms as a priority in your work programmes.

I applaud the joint venture initiative that has just been agreed between the Health Research Council and ALAC designed to help address alcohol harms among Pacific people.

And to the industry, I encourage you to look at the kind of drinking culture you are promoting and whether the reward that New Zealanders seek from alcohol is a harmful one or one which supports an industry that is a productive contributor to our economy and society.

I look forward to next year's programme of work. I am encouraged that ALAC is working on the broad issue of addressing risky drinking culture.

I look forward to the rest of the presentations this afternoon and to talking to you more informally this evening.

No reira, tena kotou, tena kotou, tena kotou, katoa.


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