Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

'Toxic tide' of booze takes deadly toll

Labour associate justice spokeswoman Lianne Dalziel said Labour advocated toughening the Alcohol Reform Bill by imposing minimum legal prices for standard drinks and further restrictions on alcohol advertising. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour associate justice spokeswoman Lianne Dalziel said Labour advocated toughening the Alcohol Reform Bill by imposing minimum legal prices for standard drinks and further restrictions on alcohol advertising. Photo / Mark Mitchell

More than one young New Zealander under 25 is dying every week from "a toxic tide" of alcohol-related causes, an official review has found.

The Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee has found that an average of 61 young people died each year between 2005 and 2007 in six kinds of accidents and assaults where alcohol was either a contributing factor or the main cause of the deaths.

The committee describes alcohol as "like a toxic tide impinging on all children and young people born and growing up in New Zealand", and urges Parliament to consider toughening up the current Alcohol Reform Bill to raise alcohol prices, raise the drinking age, and ban alcohol advertising and sponsorship links with sports.

Nelson paediatrician Dr Nick Baker, who chairs the committee, said there were still "lots of links between alcohol and sport", such as Steinlager's sponsorship of the All Blacks.

"What distresses me more than anything else is that young people are really taken in by role models," he said. "If they see the people they hero worship using alcohol in ways that are harmful, that is not ideal."

His committee found that four young people drowned in alcohol-related incidents every year, and recommends liquor bans in high-risk areas such as near water - in contrast to the decision to put Auckland's main Rugby World Cup fanzone on the waterfront.

"Are there risks of falling into Auckland Harbour while inebriated and quietly drowning?" he asked.

The committee's report, its first on alcohol, focuses on only six kinds of deaths by accidents and assaults because there is only limited data on alcohol's role in other deaths, such as infant cot deaths, suicides and fatal illnesses.

Young people aged 15 to 24 accounted for almost all the alcohol-related deaths in the six categories that were analysed.

"We see a dramatic increase in death rates for injury from age 15 onwards," Dr Baker said.

"Much of this relates to adolescent risk-taking behaviour for which alcohol is a precipitating factor.

"We document an alcohol toll for young people of about 60 deaths a year. That is the tip of an iceberg of injury, so there will be young people who don't die but get permanent head injuries, permanent spinal injuries and are in hospital.

"This is more than one death a week, so we would expect one a weekend, or two a weekend, from this."

Most of the deaths - 49 of 61 a year - were in road accidents.

The report found that 75 per cent of the young men and 45 per cent of the young women who died on the road were at least partly responsible for their own deaths because of their drinking.

But Dr Baker said 55 per cent of young women, and about half of all those who died in their teens, were killed by someone else's drinking - usually the driver's.

"This is a very important message for young people who want to keep themselves safe, and for parents and caregivers," he said.

Justice Minister Simon Power said the Alcohol Reform Bill addressed the issues raised in the report, including a clause raising the age limit for buying alcohol from liquor stores and supermarkets from 18 to 20 while leaving the age at 18 for drinking on licensed premises.

Labour associate justice spokeswoman Lianne Dalziel said Labour advocated toughening the bill by imposing minimum legal prices for standard drinks and further restrictions on alcohol advertising.

But she said the drinking age should not be the main issue because alcohol was a problem in all age groups.

Figures on all road deaths reported by Environmental Science and Research last year showed that drivers affected by alcohol as a proportion of each age group peaked in the 20-24 group, who would not be affected by changing the drinking age.

Alcohol-related deaths were only half as common in the 15-19 group, partly because some teenagers were not yet drivers.

But Dr Baker said fatal crashes were far more likely for teenage drivers with any level of alcohol in their blood.

- NZ Herald

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