Dying for a drink: Alcohol cause of one in 20 deaths

By Amelia Wade

Researchers hope report on New Zealand's drinking culture will be a wakeup call.

More alcohol-related harm was seen in men than in women and in Maori than in non-Maori. Photo / Sergey Galushko
More alcohol-related harm was seen in men than in women and in Maori than in non-Maori. Photo / Sergey Galushko

Alcohol is the cause of more than one in 20 deaths of New Zealanders aged under 80, new research has found. Health groups blamed the figures on New Zealand's dangerous binge-drinking culture and hoped the University of Otago report would be a wake-up call for the Government.

Commissioned by the Alcohol Advisory Council and published yesterday by the Health Promotion Agency, the report, called Alcohol-attributable burden of disease and injury in New Zealand: 2004 and 2007 , included 35 different groups of health conditions causally related to drinking.

Alcohol consumption was estimated to have caused 6.1 per cent of all male deaths under 80 and 4.3 per cent of all female deaths - in total, 800 deaths a year were attributable to drinking. The death rate for Maori was 2.5 times that of non-Maori.

Injuries were the leading cause of deaths related to drinking in men, while three-quarters of related female deaths were due to breast cancer, stroke and chronic diseases.

The report also found there was a huge burden of disability due to disorders caused by alcohol use that was not reflected in mortality figures.

Professor Jennie Connor and Robyn Kydd from the university's Department of Preventive and Social Medicine conducted the study with the WHO Global Burden of Disease 2010 Risk Factors Collaborating Group, based in Toronto.

Professor Connor said the report highlighted alcohol's toxic and carcinogenic properties - more than 30 per cent of alcohol-attributable deaths were due to cancers - which many people were not aware of. For many chronic diseases there was no threshold for safe consumption.

"This study demonstrates that alcohol consumption is one of the most important risk factors for avoidable mortality and disease in early and middle adulthood, and contributes substantially to loss of good health across the life course," she said.

More alcohol-related harm was seen in men than in women and in Maori than in non-Maori.

Director of Alcohol Healthwatch Rebecca Williams said if the findings did not "shake New Zealand to its core then I don't know what else we need to find out about this drug.

"This report is saying, 'We are not doing well enough'. Our rates of drinking among youths, women, our rates of drink driving, all of those things are not okay and what we're doing about them is not okay. It's time to take action."

People were also not informed enough about the long-term dangers of drinking, such as cancer and disease, and that it could also lead to mental heath issues.

People trying to cut back and parents wanting to do their best for their children were being challenged by our culture because it wasn't socially acceptable to be teetotal.

A 2010 report by the Law Commission found the unbridled commercialisation of alcohol as a commodity in the past 20 years had made our drinking problem worse.

Ms Williams said the Government needed to urgently implement evidence-based policy, as it had done for tobacco, that included forcing the alcohol industry to take responsibility.

Drink producers had been slow to adopt voluntary measures, such as health warning labels on bottles.

"The Government has changed legislation and that's still coming into effect, but they haven't put the reigns on the alcohol industry."

- NZ Herald

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