As the temperature increases over the summer months, so too does our country’s thirst for alcohol. Social gatherings, like others throughout the year, often have alcohol at their centre.
With a year having ended and a new one beginning, it’s time to reflect and look forward. As the Director of a national charity tasked to reduce the myriad of harms from alcohol, I reflect on contact from complete strangers to hear first-hand the devastating impacts that alcohol has had in their lives. Hearing these personal accounts is one of the many privileges of my position.
Most often, the harms retold are the result of someone else’s drinking. I’ve heard harrowing and unforgettable stories of family violence, child maltreatment, road deaths, sexual violence and the day-to-day struggles of families and caregivers trying to fight the system so that they can protect and care for a loved one with the lifelong disability of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Last year, I was in regular contact with a grieving person overseas, whose brother was killed in a drink driving accident in New Zealand. The harms from our drinking know no boundaries.
Every year I question why these silent voices are rarely heard in policy debates on effective measures to reduce alcohol harm – policies to increase the price of alcohol, restrict advertising and sponsorship, and reduce availability. Too often, greater concern is placed on the impact of policies upsetting the large number of so-called ‘moderate drinkers’.
The other voice that is often the loudest in the debate is that of the alcohol industry. I refer specifically to those with the greatest resource and power – the multinational alcohol companies that dominate New Zealand’s alcohol market, who return their large profits from our heavy drinking culture to overseas shareholders. Many of the alcohol products you will be familiar with are overseas-owned, as New Zealand-owned alcohol companies comprise a very small proportion of the domestic alcohol market.
The industry swings into action every summer, in pursuit of profit. As I write this, a producer of a popular RTD is offering a collection of prizes together valued over $200,000 and a liquor retailer is offering their “most epic prize competition yet”. Even some All Blacks have launched their own RTD and you can’t forget the summer cricket sponsored by a multinational beer company. Almost every upcoming music festival I have seen has an alcohol sponsor. The recent Aotearoa Music Awards were sponsored by Steinlager – with videos and images being widely distributed of award winners placed within advertising and/or consuming the product. These companies, based in the Netherlands and Japan, strive to partner with anything that unites New Zealanders with pride – to date they’ve connected their brands with our All Blacks, our music, nuclear-free stance, singing of the national anthem in Te Reo Māori, to name a few.
Alcohol retailers also exploit New Zealanders’ love for discounts, and during summer you can find our most harmful drug (alcohol) being heavily discounted (up to 60% off after Xmas day). Throughout the year, alcohol is sold for as little as 77c per standard drink. But of the 20,000+ types of alcohol products being sold, you can count on one hand the number that have the evidence-based pregnancy warning label that was mandated by Government Ministers in July 2020. I’m proud to say we now have the strongest label in the world warning of the dangers of alcohol use during pregnancy, having successfully fought industry opposition to it for more than 20 years. It’s probably no surprise to learn that, currently, the label is only on three beers – not products you would generally consider as preferred by women. Industry has until 31 July, 2023, to apply the label and the cynic in me predicts a late last rush to comply in time. I hope I’m proved wrong.
Over summer, there is no difficulty in finding a place to buy alcohol. There are over 11,000 businesses that sell alcohol, disproportionately concentrated in our most deprived communities. While I have supported many communities in 2021 to fight against new liquor outlets opening, they’ve rarely been successful against well-resourced industry lawyers. Councils that have tried to adopt a policy to limit alcohol availability have faced lengthy appeals by the supermarkets and bottle stores. Auckland Council has now spent six years in legal appeals and in 2021 the policy was heard at the Court of Appeal. It’s not over yet – the supermarkets are now looking to further challenge the policy at the Supreme Court.
Good luck in escaping from alcohol advertising over summer. It is pervasive in shopping malls, on billboards, in our social media feeds and events we attend. But we leave it to alcohol advertisers and producers to protect us from the known harms of exposure, through their own voluntary code for alcohol advertising. Increasingly, ads are uniquely targeted to consumers in digital media, free from the scrutiny of those of us working to reduce harm.
Marketing extends to whitewashing the industry image. The industry continues to run national and local anti-drink driving campaigns, despite lobbying politicians throughout the year to not implement policies that would make a real difference to the alcohol-related carnage on our roads. They increasingly partner with mental health, cancer, and environmental charities – one example in 2021 was the logo of a multinational alcohol company’s brand alongside the Mental Health Foundation logo for the annual mental health campaign ‘Movember’.
Unless we take concerted action in 2022, Year 9 students entering high school will continue to be exposed to an alcohol industry-developed and funded education programme in their classroom. For the past few years, the charity of the multinational alcohol companies (yes, you read that correctly) has exposed tens of thousands of our students to their programme and rhetoric to reduce teen binge drinking. Frankly, I find it unacceptable that we allow our vulnerable students, at an age when experimenting with alcohol and the heightened risk to the development of addiction begins, to be taught about alcohol by the industry.
Our collective voices can overcome those of the well-resourced, powerful corporations. People must come before profit. Regardless of where each of us sits on the political spectrum, we should be united in our desires to address many of the issues we deeply care about and for which alcohol plays a role – poor mental health, suicide, addiction, cancer, family harm, child wellbeing, crime, road deaths, unemployment, as well as reduced productivity and economic growth. The low price of alcohol, its high availability and pervasive marketing prevents us from achieving a fairer, healthier society. So in 2022, the year of the Tiger, let’s adopt many of its strong characteristics – courage, thriving on challenge, a keen sense to address injustice – and hear us roar. We have so much to gain.
Dr. Nicki Jackson is a advocate for alcohol reform and reducing alcohol harm and is the Executive Director of Alcohol Healthwatch