Whining About Wine

I am someone who has never enjoyed the taste of wine (or beer), so feel free to write me off as an uptight person who just doesn't get it. If you do, I'll comfort myself with this anecdote about another wildly popular addictive substance. When the psychiatrist editors of the DSM-5 were drawing up a list of such substances, funnily enough they couldn't bring themselves to include caffeine (while at the same time curiously naming caffeine withdrawal and caffeine overdose as official diagnoses) because they realised so many of their own number, like the majority of the US population, would meet the criteria as caffeine addicts, unable as they were to get through their days without coffee.

Worship of both substances nurtures a cottage industry of memes and pithy sayings such as "a yawn is a silent scream for coffee" or "I've learned how to use meditation and relaxation to handle stress... just kidding, I'm on my third glass of wine". However, when the Health Promotion Agency reports that at least a third of all police recorded offences are committed by an offender who has consumed alcohol prior to offending and when every year 70 people die at the hands of drink-drivers and an estimated 3000 babies are born damaged to some degree or another because of their mother's drinking, I fail to find any humour whatsoever here:

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Perhaps you need to have already had a glass or two to do so?

In fact, that seemingly harmless glass or two is the thin edge of an alarming statistic, that 10% of Kiwis can be considered alcoholics. This figure was calculated by Professor Doug Sellman from the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago in 2013 but seems not to have subsequently seeped into our collective awareness. Vanessa Caldwell, the co-chair of the National Committee of Addiction, commented at the time that, "When everyone's doing it, it's hard to know that you've got a problem."

Certainly the word "alcoholic" is heavy stigmatic freight, conjuring up images of hip flasks and secret stashes, AA meetings and abstinence oaths, slurring, staggering and liver damage. In an article written last year for Men's Health, Why Drinking a Little Booze Each Day May Be Killing You, Peter Flax catalogs his own insidious descent into an alcohol-dependent state, which he believes correlated better to a newer diagnostic phrase "Alcohol Use Disorder". He writes: "My sense is that someone who drinks habitually, even moderately, starts to normalize situations that are not normal." One of his own moments of truth occurred when he left his hospitalised three-month-old baby's bedside after a long vigil; his first and evidently only pit stop was at the nearest liquor store to buy some small bottles of wine, which he consumed in a bathroom stall back at the hospital.

As an expat American Kiwi, I have noticed some characteristics about the alcohol culture in New Zealand that are taken as normal but perhaps shouldn't be. The obligatory host/ess or guest speaker gift in this country is a bottle of wine. (Please, for me chocolates, a houseplant, or a bunch of flowers instead!) I treated my mother to lunch out on Mother's Day; the restaurant offered us a free glass of bubbly but had no non-alcoholic alternative. Many organisers of social gatherings, fundraisers like quiz and movie nights and the like cannot seem to contemplate holding these events in venues where alcohol is unavailable. You can bet that some prospective attendees will ask to make sure alcohol will be provided and pout or boycott if it's not, yet they won't concern themselves over the provision of food, even if the event overlaps the dinner hour. Speaking of food, why are the restaurants in the physical yellow pages grouped according to their liquor license status? Do we go out to eat or to drink? Jamie Oliver's 2008 jibe that the English can't savour food because they drink too much, have a culture of alcohol, and are more interested in getting drunk in pubs than in eating well strikes me as just as applicable to many Kiwis.

Our weakness for wine and our blind spot around the role of alcohol in our personal lives is shared by our doctors and politicians and enlarged in the realms of medicine and politics to create a cloak of denial and perhaps even wilful ignorance about alcohol's unacceptably pernicious effects.

Flex quotes Reid Hester, Ph.D., director of the research division of Checkup and Choices in Albuquerque: “Many primary-care physicians aren’t comfortable talking about drinking, in part because many drink themselves.” Their squeamishness is unfortunate because alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogen, i.e. definitely known to cause cancer, another fact that has yet to truly seep into the collective consciousness, even though the association has been known to medicine for more than 20 years. In fact, over the past few years, the proportion of cancers attributable to alcohol consumption has been on the increase, especially for women.

Alcohol Action NZ maintains that, "Effective regulation is needed to turn the tide of New Zealand’s harmful drinking culture." Legislators could take guidance from measures enacted to curtail smoking, which have surely played a role in the significant drop in the percentage of adults who report being current smokers, from 25% to 18% between 1996-97 through 2012-13. Boding well for the future, young people aged 15-19 showed the largest drop over that 16 year period. The measures enacted had the effect of marginalizing smokers by banning smoking in workplaces and restaurants.

However, the current government aids and abets the alcohol industry. Local boards have been required to review all liquor bans in their area against a new threshold, which has meant some have had to be abolished. And perhaps most significantly of all, this government's periodic refrain of "Kiwis are unemployable because of drug use", most recently by PM Bill English, deflect attention away from the bigger problem of alcohol abuse, maintaining a nonsensical double standard about legal drugs (alcohol, prescription medications) vs. those we've chosen to make illegal.