Why such fear of the ‘o’ word?

Martin Hanson

COLUMN

What do the words “drug problem” conjure up in your mind? If you’re anything like most people, you’ll be thinking of methamphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin; it would be a pretty safe bet that alcohol and nicotine would not enter your head. Yet according to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, alcohol causes more harm in this country than all the aforementioned drugs put together.

Unlike alcohol, the incidence of tobacco smoking has declined greatly since its dangers to health became widely known, leaving only a hard core of nicotine addicts still hooked. And it’s easy to see why. It’s not just the health dangers; smoking is increasingly seen as un-sexy; yellow teeth, foul smelling breath, and a complexion adding 30 years of wrinkles, are enough to put most people off taking up smoking.

Alcohol is altogether different. Though cirrhosis of the liver and other attendant health dangers are well known, even more serious are the threats to other people resulting from the effects on mood and judgement. The New Zealand Police estimate that in 2010, half of serious violent crimes were related to alcohol, and in 2012 alcohol-impaired driving contributed to 93 deaths, 454 serious injuries and 1331 minor injuries. And then there’s family violence, where damage to a child’s emotional development can be permanent and perpetuated through the generations.

Astoundingly, we can’t stiffen our spines enough to call alcohol what it is — a drug. This denial is costing us dearly, but it is on the pages of every newspaper and magazine, and seems to be the official policy of all our institutions. Denial is subtle, and takes the form of our inability to use the phrase “alcohol and other drugs”. Instead we get the cowardly and exculpatory “alcohol and drugs”. Among others who should know better are the police. To give just one example, the Police Managers’ Guild Trust document “Alcohol’s role in family violence” (2016) opens with the following statement: “Violence in the home — sometimes fuelled by alcohol and/or drugs — is killing our families and producing a generation of children who know little about growing up in safe and secure homes.”

Also aiding and abetting denial are the media. A caption to a photograph in a recent report in a New Zealand newspaper reads: “Patients under the influence of alcohol and drugs are a big problem in the emergency department.” Even worse, in the same report a charge nurse manager said “more people arrived at ED intoxicated by alcohol as opposed to drugs”. Unless this nurse has forgotten the basic pharmacology she was taught, the lapse has to be deliberate.

And hard to believe, the Ministry of Health’s own report, The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016 only mentioned alcohol to state that the report would not cover alcohol.

So how can we change our culture of tolerance toward alcohol abuse? Attempts to curb consumption have not worked; prohibition failed spectacularly in America in the 1920s and 1930s, and raising taxation has little appeal to the average voter, not to mention the alcohol industry.
A more muscular approach would target not the drug itself, but its abuse. Being drunk in public used to be an offence, but this was removed from the statutes on the grounds that it would initiate New Zealanders into a sophisticated European drinking culture. Instead it was the midwife of binge drinking.

A tentative attempt to target abuse was made in 2009 by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, then President of the Law Commission, when he called for the return of public drunkenness as an offence. This would be a useful first step, but we need to go much further. So here’s what I suggest, using hospital emergency departments and overseas travel as tools.

Except when life is threatened, drunks should be sent to the back of the queue, and if that means waiting for several hours for a broken arm to be fixed, so much the better. And since treating a drunk’s broken arm diverts financial resources from kidney transplants and other cash-strapped needs, the drunk should be made to pay for treatment. And drunks who are abusive or threatening should not be allowed through the front door until the abuse stops.

No doubt some will argue that drunks have paid for their treatment out of alcohol taxes. While a lifelong smoker may have paid for treatment for his or her lung cancer, this argument fails because abusive and violent behaviour affects innocent third parties, and needs to be punished.

The strongest message of all could come as a result of convictions for abuse. Drug convictions don’t look too good when applying for a job, and countries like the US and Australia ask on their entry cards if travellers have a drug conviction. A potential barrier to overseas travel would put a stop to the traditional Kiwi OE for some and would be a powerful encouragement to sobriety.

What do the words “drug problem” conjure up in your mind? If you’re anything like most people, you’ll be thinking of methamphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin; it would be a pretty safe bet that alcohol and nicotine would not enter your head. Yet according to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, alcohol causes more harm in this country than all the aforementioned drugs put together.

Unlike alcohol, the incidence of tobacco smoking has declined greatly since its dangers to health became widely known, leaving only a hard core of nicotine addicts still hooked. And it’s easy to see why. It’s not just the health dangers; smoking is increasingly seen as un-sexy; yellow teeth, foul smelling breath, and a complexion adding 30 years of wrinkles, are enough to put most people off taking up smoking.

Alcohol is altogether different. Though cirrhosis of the liver and other attendant health dangers are well known, even more serious are the threats to other people resulting from the effects on mood and judgement. The New Zealand Police estimate that in 2010, half of serious violent crimes were related to alcohol, and in 2012 alcohol-impaired driving contributed to 93 deaths, 454 serious injuries and 1331 minor injuries. And then there’s family violence, where damage to a child’s emotional development can be permanent and perpetuated through the generations.

Astoundingly, we can’t stiffen our spines enough to call alcohol what it is — a drug. This denial is costing us dearly, but it is on the pages of every newspaper and magazine, and seems to be the official policy of all our institutions. Denial is subtle, and takes the form of our inability to use the phrase “alcohol and other drugs”. Instead we get the cowardly and exculpatory “alcohol and drugs”. Among others who should know better are the police. To give just one example, the Police Managers’ Guild Trust document “Alcohol’s role in family violence” (2016) opens with the following statement: “Violence in the home — sometimes fuelled by alcohol and/or drugs — is killing our families and producing a generation of children who know little about growing up in safe and secure homes.”

Also aiding and abetting denial are the media. A caption to a photograph in a recent report in a New Zealand newspaper reads: “Patients under the influence of alcohol and drugs are a big problem in the emergency department.” Even worse, in the same report a charge nurse manager said “more people arrived at ED intoxicated by alcohol as opposed to drugs”. Unless this nurse has forgotten the basic pharmacology she was taught, the lapse has to be deliberate.

And hard to believe, the Ministry of Health’s own report, The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016 only mentioned alcohol to state that the report would not cover alcohol.

So how can we change our culture of tolerance toward alcohol abuse? Attempts to curb consumption have not worked; prohibition failed spectacularly in America in the 1920s and 1930s, and raising taxation has little appeal to the average voter, not to mention the alcohol industry.
A more muscular approach would target not the drug itself, but its abuse. Being drunk in public used to be an offence, but this was removed from the statutes on the grounds that it would initiate New Zealanders into a sophisticated European drinking culture. Instead it was the midwife of binge drinking.

A tentative attempt to target abuse was made in 2009 by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, then President of the Law Commission, when he called for the return of public drunkenness as an offence. This would be a useful first step, but we need to go much further. So here’s what I suggest, using hospital emergency departments and overseas travel as tools.

Except when life is threatened, drunks should be sent to the back of the queue, and if that means waiting for several hours for a broken arm to be fixed, so much the better. And since treating a drunk’s broken arm diverts financial resources from kidney transplants and other cash-strapped needs, the drunk should be made to pay for treatment. And drunks who are abusive or threatening should not be allowed through the front door until the abuse stops.

No doubt some will argue that drunks have paid for their treatment out of alcohol taxes. While a lifelong smoker may have paid for treatment for his or her lung cancer, this argument fails because abusive and violent behaviour affects innocent third parties, and needs to be punished.

The strongest message of all could come as a result of convictions for abuse. Drug convictions don’t look too good when applying for a job, and countries like the US and Australia ask on their entry cards if travellers have a drug conviction. A potential barrier to overseas travel would put a stop to the traditional Kiwi OE for some and would be a powerful encouragement to sobriety.

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Barbie Pauly - 2 months ago
sooo...what was the 'o' word again?...

Footnote answer: Alcohol and "other" drugs.

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