NZ should adopt Scottish strategy to reduce alcohol harm

Credit: Original article can be found here

OPINION: They’re fond of a dram in Scotland. A little too fond, as it happens.

For years, Scotland has wrestled with the harm caused by alcohol. Early death, ill health, crime, suicide, and medical staff dealing with drunk and abusive patients.

Sound familiar? It should, because we face a very similar problem on this side of the world. Take it from a Kiwi with Scottish blood and the occasional whisky in his veins.

Like Scotland, drinking is deeply embedded in our culture. And like Scotland, we’ve been paying the human and financial price for years.

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There’s a raft of things we need to do to save New Zealanders from hurting themselves and others through alcohol consumption. But adopting one strategy Scotland has used successfully would be a good start.

In 2015 alone, alcohol was a factor in 3705 deaths in Scotland, either from health conditions or accidents.

Health officials worked out that alcohol was more than 60 per cent cheaper than in 1980, mostly because of supermarket and off-licence sales.

So, in May 2018, Scotland set its sights on those cheap, strong drinks, by setting a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) of 50p per unit of alcohol.

For beer and spirits that meant around a five pence increase per unit. Hardly bank-breaking.

For instance, a can of lager containing two units of alcohol had to cost at least £1, and a bottle of wine containing nine units had to cost at least £4.50.

It didn’t affect the pub punter much, because bar prices tended to be above that level already.

A year later there were 18.6 deaths per 100,000 from alcohol-specific causes – higher than the 10.9 per 100,000 and 11.8 per 100,000 recorded in England and Wales respectively.

But – and here’s the good bit – Scotland’s rate had fallen from 26.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2001. No other country in the United Kingdom even had a fall in the death rate.

MUP also led to lower sales of alcohol and fewer hospital visits, and was particularly effective among male drinkers and disadvantaged communities.

And for the record, it’s not just Scotland – it’s worked in Canada too. Even the Sassenachs south of the border are looking at MUP now.

The New Zealand Medical Association has argued for MUP since 2016, along with raising the excise tax, as recommended by the Law Commission in a 2010 report that has been gathering dust ever since.

We urgently need to focus on off-licence sales, particularly to younger drinkers, because there are no controls at home. Can you say pre-loading?

The tri-agency approach by police, public health and district licensing inspectors means usually the safest place to have a drink is actually in a bar.

Bottom line: price rises won’t penalise responsible drinkers. But will reduce alcohol sales, consumption – and damage.

In tandem, we need to take a good hard look at how alcohol is marketed, and it needs to be supported by statutory regulation, not self-regulation by the booze barons.

Treatment services across the country needed to be expanded and more accessible to people who need help.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi has signalled he’s interested in a review of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act. We support that, strongly, and have written to him referring to our Reducing Alcohol-Related Harm report.

Alistair Humphrey: “Bottom line: price rises won’t penalise responsible drinkers. But will reduce alcohol sales, consumption – and damage.”

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Alistair Humphrey: “Bottom line: price rises won’t penalise responsible drinkers. But will reduce alcohol sales, consumption – and damage.”

We’re not wowsers, but when alcohol contributes to at least 5 per cent of our deaths every year, is a factor in at least a third of criminal offending and a quarter of road traffic injuries, and causes hundreds, if not thousands, of babies to be born each year with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder … you get the picture.

And please spare a thought for our medical professionals who are abused, threatened and assaulted every week by drunks, diverting time and attention from patients who desperately need it.

Many of our issues are local, and we need local solutions. But as a start, we could take a tip from those canny Scots.

Dr Alistair Humphrey is chair of the New Zealand Medical Association