One-third of Kiwis binge drink, despite new data showing New Zealanders are drinking much less than 20 years ago.
A recent study in medical journal The Lancet shows Kiwis' average alcohol consumption fell, yet people older than 15 were still drinking around three standard drinks, or three bottles of four per cent beer a day.
The trend towards decreased drinking is driven in part by health-conscious millennials. Writer Dawn Picken also found locals in other age groups cutting back or cutting out booze.
Rotorua's Alison King says a trip to England for a friend's wedding cemented her choice to stop drinking.
It was July 2004 when King says she had her "last big blow-out". She paid for it during 24 hours of flying home to New Zealand.
"After the hangover from that, I was glad to be making that decision. I don't need to be feeling like that any more."
These days, the 42-year-old says she has a quarter-flute of bubbles during celebrations but is otherwise dry.
King says joining a new workplace could be awkward as a non-drinker.
"It was like, 'What do you mean you don't drink?' It was seen as a bad thing that there was something about you that was weird, or that you weren't cool or able to enjoy yourself the same as everyone else, but I actually love that I'm not drinking."
King has been married 11 years and says her husband has never been a drinker.
"We're both early risers and we both get on with our days quite early, even on weekends. If we go to a party, we don't stay long. We like to be quiet at home, so even if we go out to an event, we know we can wake up and get on with the rest of our day and stuff we had planned."
She says her father was a heavy drinker who died three years ago of liver disease.
"There was nothing they could do because the damage had been done 20 years prior. Anyone who's a heavy drinker now is risking their health further down the track."
King doubts she'll ever return to drinking. She likes the way she feels and the money she saves not buying alcohol.
Angela Wallace (Ange to friends) sliced her hand open on a fishing trip earlier this year.
She drove herself to A&E.
"I had a moment of seeing myself objectively – in my spearfishing wetsuit, my blood and kingfish blood all over me, and my hand taped with gaffer tape, on the side of the road putting money into a parking metre."
Wallace did not go home that evening and placate herself with pinot noir. She quit drinking alcohol in late 2016 for health and lifestyle reasons.
Though her wound is still healing, Ange likes who she's become – someone whose highs come from deep dives into her own psyche and the sea.
"I would never be able to do it if I was drinking. I would always feel like crap."
Wallace says she's gotten clearer about what makes her happy, which often means getting up "in the fours" on weekends to fish, climb Mauao and swim.
It's no-wetsuit Wednesday, a year-round meeting of friends who swim around Leisure Island.
"The cool thing I've embraced since giving up drinking is being comfortable with the uncomfortable. We need adventure and adventure takes risk," says Wallace.
She says her drinking habits didn't raise alarm bells for anyone else - she didn't drink drive, fall over or fight. But once or twice a year, she said things while drunk she later regretted.
Wallace announced her sobriety in a 2016 social media post, saying, "I'm loud and opinionated and boisterous sober, so I know I could be a pain-in-the-ass when I was drunk."
Wallace says drinking didn't mix with Crohn's (an inflammatory bowel disease), skin cancer surgery and low energy levels.
Over the course of our conversations for this story – on the phone, in-person and via email, Wallace reveals more and more of herself, much like she'd peel off a wetsuit to expose her body to the ocean.
She wrote, "I think I should be more honest including with myself, especially since I encourage others to be.
"The truth is that an alcohol-free evening was a rarity and a triumph. I was polishing off a bottle of pinot most nights and even more when we entertained, which was weekly. It was a really shitty way to live and I beat myself up over it daily. I'm so bloody relieved that alcohol has no place in my life any more."
The hardest part, says Wallace, was making the decision to stop drinking.
Mental moderation arithmetic didn't work. Only drink on weekends? Two per day?
"Drink less was always on my New Year's resolutions, but it never really stuck. It's easy to look around and see other people drinking more and rationalise that you can't have a problem."
Wallace cut alcohol two-and-a-half years ago and now sips sparkling water, coconut water or kombucha (a fermented tea drink).
"When you stop drinking, that's the exciting part, because you're living in reality, feeling everything."
Wallace says she has never felt the need to justify abstinence to anyone else. She believes in JOMO – the joy of missing out and doesn't frequent cafes and bars.
Instead, she focuses on her consultancy business and outdoor passions. She's partner and child-free.
"I'm all about building a life that's amazing regardless of whether someone else is in it."
Wallace hasn't just given up drinking – she's gained a new self.
No Beers? Who Cares!
On a Saturday evening at Mount Maunganui's House of Yoga, a couple of dozen people gather in a dimly-lighted room.
Candles glow and a blender whirs as groups and couples sit and stand to chat. A table holds bottles of kombucha, ginger beer and virgin pina coladas. The mocktail is delicious.
The group is here to see No Beers? Who Cares! founder Claire Robbie, a yoga and meditation teacher and former TV journalist, who quit alcohol following a hard-partying lifestyle in Los Angeles.
"I had no idea how dependent I was on it. I was driving home drunk. It was the opposite of glamorous."
Robbie says two friends would hold her accountable to her sobriety pledge, but she wanted a wider community of support.
"You have to be disciplined and go easy on yourself. Everyone has a different relationship with alcohol. I realised how normalised our drinking culture is."
People told Robbie they'd join her in abstaining.
She provides practical advice about how to be sober in a boozy world, holding events in bars so people can practise ordering mocktails or soda water.
"The first 15 or 20 minutes of any event is usually a bit awkward. If I push through, everyone relaxes."
And while quitting alcohol for a month has become popular, she says our brains start to reprogramme after two or three dry months.
I had no idea how dependent I was on it. I was driving home drunk. It was the opposite of glamorous.
NBWC is billed as an online and in-person community focused on sober socialising and getting outside. It's not anti-alcohol; it's pro-mindfulness.
Robbie says, "I don't like to be a downer about drinking. Some people can have a couple and not have it affect their life at all. I was not one of them."
The initiative has membership fees and merchandise. Brand ambassadors and guest speakers include media personality Hayley Holt and comedian Guy Williams.
Registering involves pledging to live 100 per cent alcohol-free for a period of time.
"No Beers? Who Cares! is a way to support people who want to reframe their relationship with alcohol," says Robbie.
Kelli Hutchison attended the Mount event to gain inspiration for sobriety.
The Aongatete woman is grieving the death of her father and doesn't want to drown sorrow with sauvignon blanc.
"I want to feel it without numbing it…the first week after he died, I had all these beautiful moments, hearing birds, seeing rainbows and sunsets ..."
Hutchison says she once believed she could rely on alcohol. Not anymore.
"I don't need it. My energy levels are better with my kids, too."
Athlete, coach and physiotherapist Brad Dixon also mingled with the NBWC crowd.
He later told me he used to rely partly on alcohol as stress relief when his children were younger. He'd have a wine or two each night and more on weekends.
"Then, when you actually get off it and don't use it as a crutch, maybe just have it on a special occasion, you feel so much better."
Dixon says he has a drink or two every fortnight.
"It's about changing the focus. Instead of going out for beers with the boys, it's going out with the boys and having beers ... it's that camaraderie that should be the focus rather than having the beers."
National Health Crisis
One in five Kiwis has a hazardous drinking pattern, according to 2017/18 Ministry of Health statistics from a health questionnaire.
Hazardous drinking refers to an established alcohol drinking pattern that carries a risk of harming the drinker's physical or mental health or having harmful social effects on the drinker or others. Among the survey's findings:
•Men (27 per cent) were at least twice as likely as women (13 per cent) to be hazardous drinkers.
•Thirty-two per cent of Māori adults were hazardous drinkers in 2017/18.
•Māori adults were 1.6 times as likely as non-Māori adults to be hazardous drinkers.
•In the most deprived areas, 21 per cent of all adults were hazardous drinkers.
An analysis of global alcohol harm published in The Lancet last year found no amount of alcohol is good for overall health.
Researchers say alcohol use increases the risk of certain cancers, stroke, liver disease, fatal aneurysm, heart failure, accidental death and suicide.
The study suggested every glass of wine or pint of beer over the daily recommended limit will cut half an hour from the expected lifespan of a 40-year-old.
The journal says five standard 175ml glasses of wine or five pints a week is the upper safe limit.
Numbers out last year from an economist pegged the cost of Kiwis' alcohol consumption at $7.8 billion annually compared to $2.2b spent on Treaty of Waitangi settlements since the 1990s.
The alcohol lobby disputes those figures, saying some costs have been double-counted.
New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council executive director Nick Leggett last year said the figures were not independent, had been funded by the anti-alcohol lobby and the methodology had been debunked.
He wrote in the Herald, "... those who don't drink alcohol actually die earlier than those who drink it moderately."
He said research also found people who never drink alcohol had a shorter life expectancy than those who drank up to 25 drinks per week, because moderate drinking improves cardiovascular health.
An analysis of global alcohol harm published in The Lancet last year found no amount of alcohol is good for overall health.
Mount Maunganui GP Dr Tony Farrell, who holds a fellowship in addiction medicine, says he's not a prohibitionist – he drinks at "low risk".
But he sees first-hand the harm hazardous drinking can do: family violence, foetal alcohol syndrome, A&E visits, suicides.
"Thirty-three per cent of suicides have alcohol associated with them, and all legislation that reduces alcohol availability reduces suicide. So you'd think in a society that has a suicide problem that that would be done."
Dr Farrell points to statistics (see graphic below) from UK researcher David Nutt, who found alcohol caused more harm in society than heroin, cannabis, even more harm than methamphetamine. Dr Farrell believes the same pattern exists in New Zealand.
"It's advertised, it's glamorised, it's normalised ... and because it's an addictive drug and because people are accessing it at a young age, addiction often arises in adolescence and we've got too much of that drug in the population ... because their mid-brains have been using it over the years and it's developed into almost an automatic response to drink."
Dr Farrell says some people are more vulnerable to alcohol dependency than others, and most of our response to the drug is unconscious.
"So you like alcohol almost before you've registered you like alcohol in your head."
Dr Farrell applauds initiatives like No Beers? Who Cares! that support people who want to quit or reduce their drinking.
He says government has shown lack of leadership on the issue, failing to implement policies shown to reduce alcohol harm, such as raising prices (see related story: Alcohol Action NZ's 5+ Solution).
"I was hoping the Wellbeing Budget would talk about that. They haven't mentioned it at all. It's kind of like we're blind to the drug problem, and of course everyone's talking about P [methamphetamine] and yes, there may be issues with cannabis, but alcohol is the number one issue."
Farrell is also the national spokesman for Alcohol Action NZ, a group of public health and other professionals working in the field of addictions treatment.
Getting Help and the M-word
What helps people with alcohol issues varies case-by-case.
Dr Farrell says some people need abstinence-based outpatient treatment like the programme offered at Greerton's Hanmer Clinic or Bay of Plenty Addictions Services; some get help when a family doctor, counsellor or a police officer intervenes; and others need residential treatment, something not available in Tauranga.
"I know there's a push to get that here, because we do need a residential facility."
I ask whether moderation is effective.
"You've just sworn at me," he says. "... because moderation is an alcohol industry term. What does moderation mean? It's rubbish."
Dr Farrell says you can meet the criteria for alcohol dependence without being a daily drinker.
And you don't have to have a family history of alcoholism to be at-risk. Experts say it's a progressive problem. One daily wine can turn into two, which can become a habit of consuming an entire bottle most nights. Or box of beer. Or flask of bourbon.
Hanmer Clinic director David Benton says enormous peer pressure exists in our culture and probably always will.
"At any workplace on a Thursday or Friday night, it's 'What are you doing after work, and what are you going to drink'?"
He says we need tools and skills to manage or eliminate alcohol use.
"One of great things about alcohol, because it has an effect on the central nervous system, it tends to put to sleep part of the brain that has social inhibition and where we are shy."
Benton says we feel more able to communicate and relax while using alcohol.
"That's why society will probably continue to use that social relaxant. The trouble is that effect is ongoing."
Benton suggests clients have an answer ready when offered a drink.
"I'll have a tonic with a bit of lime juice, thanks. If they say, 'Wouldn't you like a wine,' the answer is 'No.' It means I don't have to be embarrassed or flustered."
Not a Drop
Arash Alaeinia is a life-long non-drinker.
Alaeinia's religion is Bahá'í, which forbids alcohol and other non-prescribed drugs.
The 48-year-old lives in Rotorua but grew up in Newcastle, England, where he says drinking was encouraged. Alaeinia used to go out five times per week and served as sober driver for his friends. He relishes never having hangovers or regrets about socialising.
"If I did something stupid it was a choice ... I always had my wits about me, was always positive and happy and didn't need to give myself something from outside to give me Dutch courage to have the ability to dance or go and talk to somebody."
Even after 25 years in hotel management, when colleagues took up drinking and smoking to try to handle stress, Alaeinia wasn't tempted.
"I have done wine courses and whisky and cognac courses. I could get the same understanding from smelling it and looking at colour and looking at lines created on the glass without drinking it."
Alaeinia moved to New Zealand in 2009 and says this country's drinking habits mirror those of the UK.
He believes humans are noble creatures and alcohol reduces our capacity for thinking and doing.
"Drinking also comes from the culture we've created, which is I want to be happy right now."
While some parents drink to unwind, Alaeinia finds reading and meditation are better coping methods.
"I have children, they've pissed me off, but I've never felt the need to have a drink to calm me to take the edge off. I have the full sense of my ability to be able to deal with the problem of stress as opposed to taking a substance."
He believes society's attitudes and behaviours towards alcohol could change when we reach a tipping point – when enough people have been affected by drinking's harms to realise everyone has a role to play, whether it's cutting back on drinking or quitting altogether.
Living with Gusto
Ange Wallace recently snagged her biggest snapper ever, a 15-pounder.
She loves her new sober life so much, she can't imagine masking feelings with mind-altering toxins.
"I think drinking can delay the inevitable because you're blurring the edges of your existence."
Wallace's edges are sharp, like the tip of her spear gun.
And sharing her sobriety story has produced surprising results.
"Functioning alcoholics are everywhere. But every time I put something out on social media, I have people contact me and it's never the people I imagine it would be. There's a whole lot of people carrying this secret around – way more than statistics would say."
Wallace doesn't abide alcohol-soaked secrets. She has bigger fish to fry.
Alcohol Action NZ 5+ Solution
Many health professionals who work in the addiction field say education campaigns and the hope individuals will become more responsible have not been effective strategies to decrease New Zealand's harmful drinking culture.
A group called Alcohol Action NZ says effective regulation is needed. They recommend:
•Raising alcohol prices
•Raising the purchase age
•Reducing marketing and advertising
•Increasing drink-driving counter-measures
The group also wants to increase treatment opportunities for heavy drinkers.
Evidence shows the most effective measures to reduce alcohol abuse were price, availability and marketing. The Law Commission recommended those changes in 2010 but they were not adopted in reforms passed by the National Government at the time.
New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council executive director Nick Leggett says Kiwis are drinking one-quarter less than they were in the 1980s and harm had also dropped.
Leggett says the problem is best dealt with by targeting those who have abused alcohol through education, monitoring and acting to reduce recidivism.
A Lancet study found between 1990 and 2017, Kiwis' average alcohol consumption fell from 13.5 litres of pure alcohol a year to 10.8 litres a year.
That meant New Zealanders older than 15 were drinking around three standard drinks, or three bottles of 4 per cent beer a day – almost 1100 a year.
Around 11 per cent of New Zealand adults did not drink at all, while 34 per cent had a heavy drinking episode – 60mg of pure alcohol or around six bottles of beer – at least once a month
Kiwis out-drinking the world – global Study
New Zealand: 13.5 litres/year
Global: 5.9 litres/year
New Zealand: 10.8 litres/year
Global: 6.5 litres/year
New Zealand: 12.1 litres/year
Global: 7.6 litres/year
(Average pure alcohol per year for people aged 15 and older, Global Burden of Disease Study)
Advice for adults
Reduce long-term health risks by drinking no more than:
•Two standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week
•Three standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks a week
•At least two alcohol-free days every week
Reduce your risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking by drinking no more than:
•Four standard drinks for women on any single occasion
•Five standard drinks for men on any single occasion
The above advice is based on "standard drinks". A standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. A common serve or pour of an alcoholic beverage is often more than a standard drink.
(Source: Health Promotion Agency)
What else can I drink?
Millennials Fueling Sales of Low-alcohol and No-alcohol Drinks
New Zealand breweries are seeing big sales growth in "better for me" categories thanks to younger Kiwis wanting to live a healthier lifestyle, according to an article earlier this month in the National Business Review.
The "better" category includes low/zero alcohol beers and adult non-alcoholic beverages such as kombucha.
NBR reported Lion brewery saw sales of its 2.5 per cent beer, Steinlager Pure Light, grow from $40,500 last April to $101,500 this April.
Research company Nielsen reports the kombucha category in New Zealand has grown 232.6 per cent in value to $18.7m in the past 12 months, while the country's low/zero alcohol and low carb beer value is $61.9m, up 29.3 per cent from 12 months ago.
DB Breweries managing director Peter Simons told NBR its Heineken brand reached its highest global growth in more than 10 years last year, led by demand for its zero-alcohol brand, Heineken 0.0.
The company's sales director told the New Zealand Herald late last year one in five beers sold will be low or no-alcohol within two years.