Richie Hardcore: Why aren’t we doing anything about alcohol harm?


Last year, my father, a lifelong chronic alcoholic, relapsed after nine years sober and needed to go into detox. It was during the process of trying to find help for him that I was reminded that if someone needs to get into a residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre here in Auckland, they’ll be waiting anywhere from six weeks to four months.

A few days, let alone four months, is enough time for anyone with a chronic substance problem to destroy plenty of lives, including their own. After a second emergency trip to the hospital, the doctors advised me to take Dad straight to the nearest liquor store so he could get enough alcohol to do what’s called maintenance drinking until a bed became available.

Maintenance drinking is a slippery slope for an alcoholic, to say the least. It’s when the drinker tries to moderate their alcohol consumption so they have enough alcohol in their system that they don’t do physiological harm by going into serious withdrawal, which can lead to seizures and death. People with such a severe addiction require a medical detox to help them safely withdraw. In New Zealand’s largest city there are only 10 publicly funded beds that do this.

It’s a disquieting experience taking an alcoholic to a bottle store but, tragically, it’s a common occurrence for many families. Maintenance drinking is almost impossible for an alcoholic to manage without external support, and many people simply drop out from seeking help.

While this is the extreme end of the scale, one in four New Zealanders drink at levels that are considered hazardous. Like nearly all social issues, we have inequitable outcomes when it comes to alcohol harm. Those most affected are men, Māori and those living in more socio-economically deprived communities. The kicker is that in lower socio-economic areas there are more off-license liquor shops than the national average, and the liquor is always cheaper than in well-to-do areas.

Alcohol is hurting those who are most vulnerable and very little is being done about it.

Alcohol Action NZ – a collection of researchers, addiction practitioners and public health experts – says that up to 30,000 children have been born with alcohol-related brain damage over the past 10 years. Nationally about 8000 people have died prematurely as a result of alcohol over the same period. Alcohol is a contributing factor to poor mental health outcomes including suicide. The stats around alcohol’s contribution to cancer are out-the-gate; not to mention how it fuels street violence, crime and road fatalities. It isn’t just profoundly affecting those living in the margins; it affects everyone, yet there is little ongoing public discussion about it. This needs to change, and we need widespread public advocacy to make it happen.

When I saw Waitemata’s DHB Alcohol Position statement that was issued last week, I was frustrated to see that the recommendations they put out for high-level change were exactly the same as 11 years ago when the law commission released a report called Alcohol In Our Lives, Curbing The Harm. I worked in an alcohol and drug harm reduction position for Auckland Council at the time. The National Party, which was in power at the time, largely ignored the reforms that were recommended to reduce the enormous amount of damage alcohol does in our communities, especially within our most marginalised communities.

More than a decade has gone by, and now with a Labour-Greens government committed to reducing social harms, they have the ability and the political capital to make a real difference by making the bold decision to act on those same policy recommendations.

Standing up to the liquor lobby and indeed a public that loves to get lit isn’t going to be politically popular, but if we truly care about tangibly making a difference to save lives and improve outcomes, it needs to happen.

Just as we need to reform our outdated drug laws to reduce the harm that currently illicit drugs cause by regulating them strictly, we need to tighten our restrictions and regulations on alcohol. Otherwise, more and more people are going to die needlessly or be set up for potentially life-long cycles of dysfunction.

If 15 people a week were dying from heroin or methamphetamine in New Zealand, we would have outrage across all our social media platforms, and rightly so, until systematic change happened. Experts tell us that 15 people a week are dying of alcohol-related causes, including cancer, yet we largely have silence from the people who could make a difference – people who could use their platforms to instigate change.

What changes do we need specifically? We need to do what the best research shows us works to reduce problem drinking; we need to restrict the availability of liquor by limiting the number of stores, increase the purchase age back to 20, increase the price of alcohol, reduce alcohol advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and of course ensure equitable access to high-quality health care, such as detox and rehab facilities. All of these things are proven to work.

Tired public health officials have been saying this stuff for years, rolling out more and more research that highlights the harm, but we need all people to use their reach to give our politicians the public approval to put policies in place that will stop the destruction alcohol causes.

Alcohol doesn’t have to be some innate part of New Zealand’s culture, it’s a poisonous product sold to us by multinational conglomerates who take their profits offshore. They privatise the profit and we socialise the cost of picking up the pieces. While we wait for change, Uber Eats can deliver alcohol to our front doors.

The experts know what works and have the research to prove it. Now more than ever we are seeing social media rightly being used to bring so many endemic social issues and injustices to light. We are inundated with social issues, both from home and from overseas. Why not use the modern communication channels at our disposal to keep this conversation going and tackle one of the biggest problems we have at home? Creating a viral movement that will save lives and improve the situations of our most at risk and in need.

We have the power to change this at our fingertips. Message your MPs, talk to your councils, educate your friends and use your voice. I don’t want another 10 years to go by and nothing to have changed.

Richie Hardcore advocates for community based alcohol and drug harm reduction, and has done a lot of public speaking, particularly in schools, around mental health and alcohol and drug harm

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