Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Heads in the sand while our kids are on the booze

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I wept for James Websters' parents on Close Up.

Commentators may be right when they say binge drinking stems from our insecurity. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Commentators may be right when they say binge drinking stems from our insecurity. Photo / Otago Daily Times

Another week, another child dead from binge drinking, another bunch of ostriches.

Raising the purchase age for alcohol, limiting the number of liquor outlets, increasing the price of booze won't make a difference, they say.

I admit in the past, I smugly asked why, as a responsible drinker (which at times I definitely wasn't) I should be forced to be responsible for the oafs who choose to go out and get trashed.

But this is an ignorant view of this country's culture, and only a fool clings to an opinion because she won't confess to a u-turn.

Perhaps other commentators are correct when they say binge drinking stems from our insecurity, our lack of pride and happiness. We are violent, and alcohol brings that into sharp relief.

But that's no reason to shrug and do nothing.

On Tuesday evening I wept for James Websters' parents on Close Up, just as I did weeks ago watching the mother of Amy-Rose Allen, waiting to switch off life support for her recidivist drink-driving, beautiful young daughter.

There but for the grace of God go most of us. It's all very well my generation, in our late 50s and 60s, saying we drank in our teens and it didn't harm us, but beer was only about 3 per cent alcohol then.

Today kids can get beer up to 13 per cent strength and they don't have to drink as much to get trolleyed.

I'm damn lucky my own children survived the Auckland party rituals, when the legal drinking age was 20. I'd be fooling myself if I said they never told lies, didn't fake their ID, drink under age.

Looking back, there must have been a few close shaves, and I know one of their friends died at a party in the Coromandel when drugs were involved.

James Websters' parents were brave to front the media and provoke more debate about liquor laws. Amy-Rose's mother phoned Close Up because she wanted the country to know about the dangers of alcohol.

Just as Amy-Rose's mother was attacked, now the Websters are criticised on talkback and blogsites. What does it take for people to realise it's not the parents' fault? We can't lock our children up and throw away the keys.

Will any good come from the publicising of these peoples' grief?

One thing's for sure, James Webster is not being used as a "pin-up" boy for the campaigners, as claimed by blogger Cameron Slater.

Slater, son of former National Party president John Slater, cruelly wrote this week about James Webster: "A toffee-nosed school boy drank himself to death ... a dead thief and a liar who couldn't handle his piss killed himself. I always said Kings boys were poofs."

Fortunately, Slater's influence is nil. But someone who does have gravitas, Dr Margaret Abercrombie, wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister pointing out in graphic detail, and from personal experience,
just how much the drinking culture has changed in the last 10 years.

Some 16-year-olds, she says, imbibe up to 24 drinks over a weekend and spend all Sunday recovering.

Abercrombie asks, is it unreasonable to ask Parliament to take the lead and "change the culture of excessive drinking"?

John Key stated that raising the purchase age would not have saved James Webster's life. We don't know that for sure. What we do know is that when the legal age was 20, kids who were 18 or 19 drank because they were "nearly 20". Now kids who are 15 or 16 drink because they are "nearly 18".

I know raising the purchase age alone won't be enough. As Vanessa Reddy from Otago University Students' Association said, tackling the student binge-drinking culture will involve numerous initiatives. At least she's come up with tough measures.

MPs found it easy to up cigarette taxes, now that tobacco lobbyists are considered the devil incarnate. Yet except for Jim Anderton, not one MP will state the obvious on alcohol prices, regulations and licences. But as I've written before, booze lobbyists keep fridges well stocked in the corridors of power.

- Herald on Sunday

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