Is going alcohol-free for a month really something to celebrate? Catherine Gaffaney asks experts what Dry July says about New Zealand's Drinking Culture.

Saturday, July 4: "Nah, can't come sorry, I'm doing Dry July. Everyone else will be drinking, and it'll be nice to spend a Saturday night at home for once."

July 11: Spot friend who couldn't make last weekend's party because of Dry July - wine glass in hand, looking intoxicated.

"Oh yeah, that. I tried but it was just too hard. I didn't get around to signing up and everyone else has given up by now anyway."

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This month, thousands of Kiwis are doing "Dry July". Officially, it's a fundraiser that challenges Kiwis to go booze-free for the month to support adults living with cancer.

Unofficially, it's a concept that Dry July New Zealand manager Scott Savidge says hundreds more get on board with because they want the challenge of staying sober for four weeks.

Anecdotally, even that is "too hard" or "not worth trying" for some Kiwis.

HOW DEPENDENT ON ALCOHOL ARE WE?

The latest official survey of our drinking habits by the Ministry of Health found that of the 80 per cent of adults who had a drink in a 12-month period, one in five had a hazardous drinking pattern.

Such statistics are discussed in different ways by different parties but, according to Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams, the conclusion is always the same:

New Zealand has a problem and not enough is being done about it.

Williams says drinking has been "normalised" in New Zealand, clouding the incredibly high risk that alcohol places on our health and several aspects of our well-being.

"The drinking culture and pressures to drink and continue drinking are very persuasive and pervasive," she says.

"There's very few areas or occasions you can go to in New Zealand where alcohol isn't an expected part of the activity.

"It's seen as an essential element to relaxation, an essential element to social connection and an essential part of all our gatherings, generally. Because it's accepted and encouraged, people with problems don't want to expose that they might be having difficulties, or not be coping."

Not subscribing to the culture, on the other hand, all too often means being marginalised and ostracised.

These trends also worry New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell, who believes drinking is "extremely" normalised.

"We celebrate the birth of a child with alcohol and we commiserate the death of someone with alcohol," he says. "It's seen as such a normal thing that people buy it when they do their weekly grocery shop."

Dry July and the Drug Foundation's "FebFast", which encourages Kiwis to go alcohol-free in February for charity, serve as a wake-up call for many people, he says.

"People wanting to do Dry July as a test kind of speaks to the fact some people are probably nervous about the level of drinking that they do.

"People who choose not to do it or feel threatened by it, I think really panic because they just can't see how they could get through."

Bell says such reactions to Dry July aren't surprising, however, because "drinking is such a big part of who we are as New Zealanders, sadly".

HAS IT ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY?

Bell says there's something about humans and the "pursuit of getting out of it".

"Most, not all, cultures have had some form of intoxicant. Part of alcohol's popularity is it does what it says it's going to do. It give you warm feelings and it loosens your inhibitions.

"There are some positive signs of improvement - the drink-drive laws have had an enormous effect, and youth surveys show the proportion of young people drinking is in decline - but fundamentally, what hasn't changed significantly are our patterns of drinking.

"We do still have this pattern of when you drink, you drink to get drunk."

Dry July's Scott Savidge acknowledges he's not an expert on alcohol - Dry July is first and foremost a fundraiser - but he says our longstanding relationship with alcohol is pretty clear.

"It's so intensely socialised and so embedded in the culture and so freely available.

"People have been eating plants and fermenting things to go to different spaces in their consciousness since the beginning.

"Alcohol is the only recreational drug legally available to New Zealanders so when it's your only option when you want to change your consciousness, which is something that's embedded in humanity from day dot, then you don't really have a choice if that's what you want to do."

Savidge believes the often-slated youth of today are no worse than other age groups and generations.

"Younger people, students and so on are often targeted or highlighted because they're visible. What people don't see is the large numbers of people who aren't visible who are drinking problematically; the older people who drink at home in a way that's not monitored."

DOES DRY JULY MAKE A DENT?

Savidge says Dry July clearly gets into people's heads enough to at least consider their personal relationships with alcohol. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he thinks it's important to sign up for the full Dry July process.

"Most people who are social drinkers and take on the challenge and want to stop generally do so because they recognise there's an element of habituation in their drinking.

"The temptation is always there. If no one knows you've given up then its much easier to not see it out, but if you do it for a cause, it's a whole different animal. That external motivation is really important for a lot of people to find a reason to quit."

Each year, official participants are surveyed about their drinking habits at the end of August/early September. Three quarters say they'll drink less and just under half say they'll change their drinking habits.

WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE?

Williams, of Alcohol Healthwatch, says there needs to be drastic action to stop the normalisation of alcohol becoming even deeper entrenched.

"The industry says it comes down to personal responsibility, but that's rubbish. It's a mix of personal choices and our environment.

"The environment determines and sustains the culture. Every single review of our drinking habits says we need to restrict advertising of alcohol, yet we do nothing."

Change needs to be made at the population level, she says.

"No amount of education or social marketing will make a significant impact. There's so many studies and experts that say there needs to be taxation and restricted availability.

"At the individual level, the focus should be on where to get help."

That's not to say work can't be done on how we view alcohol. Gynaecologist Albert Makary, who says he's seen too many unwanted pregnancies as a result of alcohol abuse, has declared war on our "binge drinking culture". He says the culture needs to be stigmatised so drunkenness isn't seen as "cool".

At the moment, there's too much acceptance of drunken and drugged behaviour, according to Makary.

He cites the drink-driving advertisements with a carload of drunks and one sober driver, implying it's okay to get drunk - as long as you don't drive.

Bell likewise thinks Kiwis collectively can be doing better. "There's some responsibility with drinkers themselves but, as a society, we can do lot better with the norms we set ourselves.

"I think we can choose as a country to allow alcohol but work harder at reducing the harmful patterns of drinking that we do."

FAST FACTS

- One in five New Zealanders who have consumed alcohol in the past 12 months have a hazardous drinking pattern. That's about 532,000 people.

-Alcohol is the cause of 1 in 20 deaths of New Zealanders aged under 80. That's around 800 deaths a year.

- At least a third of all police recorded offences are committed by an offender who has consumed alcohol prior to committing the offence. That's an average of 340 offences per day.

-Studies have estimated the social cost of drinking alcohol in New Zealand is $4.9 billion per year. That's over a thousand dollars per person.
- Source: New Zealand Drug Foundation

DRY JULY

- More than $700,000 was raised in each of the past two years. The money goes to cancer service organisations, including the Cancer Society of New Zealand and various care facilities to support projects which don't otherwise get funded.

- Savidge hopes even more will be raised this year so organisations can go further in making the cancer treatment journey as comfortable, well-supported and dignified as possible.

- Sign ups are open-ended. Go to http://nz.dryjuly.com.

WHERE TO GET HELP

Alcohol Drug Helpline: alcoholdrughelp.org.nz or 0800 787 797
Alcoholics Anonymous New Zealand: aa.org.nz or 0800 229 6757