One in five New Zealand adults has what the Ministry of Health defines as a hazardous drinking pattern. To mark the 70 years since Alcoholics Anonymous started in New Zealand, Lee Umbers takes a look at the country's booze culture.

Jordan Luck wonders if he would have lived to see 60 if he hadn't given up the booze.

"I'd be drinking from the moment I got up basically to when I'd fall asleep, so, beer – I'd get through two to three dozen a day.

"I'd take periods off, a couple of days here, a couple of days there."

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The former Exponents singer's battle with alcohol was so bad that when he did stop for a time, he'd suffer petit mal seizures - a brief loss of consciousness.

"All of a sudden these red diamonds would come across my eyes. I'd black out.

"It was just a shock to my system when I didn't drink."

Luck, now 56, spent his 40s drinking throughout the day.

The acclaimed hit-maker, who penned such Kiwi classics as Why Does Love Do This to Me, also had scares with potential diabetes and liver damage.

Then, six years ago, concerned friends and family staged an intervention.

"A whole heap of people came along and said you're going to [a rehabilitation centre] tomorrow."

Jordan Luck performs at the No. 4 Woolshed in Ahuriri, Napier. Photo / Paul Taylor
Jordan Luck performs at the No. 4 Woolshed in Ahuriri, Napier. Photo / Paul Taylor

Luck says he thought "this is what I need". But "about 10 seconds later" he started to say he had projects on.

"They said, 'No – you're going."

He acquiesced.

Luck says during his month-long stay he realised the extent of his problem and was able to quit his heavy drinking.

Luck's experience can't be put down to rock star behaviour.

New Zealanders aged over 15 drink an average of 8.7 litres of alcohol a year.

One in five New Zealand adults has what the Ministry of Health defines as a hazardous drinking pattern.

That means they have an established drinking pattern that carries a risk of harming themselves physically or mentally or having harmful social effects on the drinker or others.

Harm can refer to alcohol's effect on rates of disease, and death and injury through traffic accidents, drowning, suicide, assaults and domestic violence.

In the year to June 2017, more than 4000 people were hospitalised because of alcohol.

Hazardous drinking rates are higher in men (27 per cent) than in women (12 per cent) and are highest in the 18-24 age group (33 per cent).

And the problem isn't new to New Zealand.

Seventy years ago, Alcoholics Anonymous started helping New Zealanders. The first meeting was in the surgery of an alcoholic Auckland dentist who was passionate about helping others recover from the disease of alcoholism.

1 in 5 Kiwis drink alcohol in a way that could harm themselves or others. Photo / 123RF
1 in 5 Kiwis drink alcohol in a way that could harm themselves or others. Photo / 123RF

Instead of beer, Luck now drinks sparkling water with lime. If he's singing at a show, he can get through three litres in a couple of hours.

In the middle of a national tour with his Jordan Luck Band, he finds sober life "absolutely joyous".

He says his health has improved. And he's enjoying people telling him how much better he looks – "that kind of stuff goes down merrily".

To others for whom alcohol is troublesome, his message is: "If it's problematic, ease back. If you're an alcoholic, stop."

ALCOHOL IS a "psychoactive drug, which produces a compelling euphoric experience in most users, and has for thousands of years in most human societies," says professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Otago University, Dr Doug Sellman.

"In our society, however, this natural attractiveness of alcohol is pushed along by very heavy marketing by the alcohol industry as a social tonic, and almost a health tonic at times - certainly a product that indicates social success, like cigarettes 50 years ago.

"The impact of this marketing is combined with alcohol's relatively low price, high accessibility - particularly through supermarkets - teenage purchase and lack of stringent Scandinavian-like drink driving laws and produces a culture of heavy, normalised drinking, with enormous negative consequences."

Also "as people become more troubled in our increasingly disconnected and lonely society, alcohol acts as an anaesthetic for self-medication".

Alcohol Action NZ, a medically-led organisation for which Sellman is a spokesman, is an advocacy group publicising its 5+ Solution to the public and the Government in an attempt for alcohol law reform.

Sellman says the five-fold solution to tackling our drinking culture is:

Marketing: dismantle it;
Pricing: increase it;
Accessibility: reduce it;
Age of purchase: raise it;
Drink-driving countermeasures: strengthen them.

"The key thing required is a government to act on alcohol reform."

Murray Deaker stopped drinking on January 14, 1978. It was the best decision he ever made. Photo / Richard Robinson
Murray Deaker stopped drinking on January 14, 1978. It was the best decision he ever made. Photo / Richard Robinson

Award-winning sports radio and TV talk show host Murray Deaker can remember the date he stopped drinking - January 14, 1978.

On holiday in Pauanui with his wife and their three young children, he "very nearly drowned because I had rowed a rowboat, which was most unseaworthy, across to Tairua - to get two dozen beer".

"[I] stayed there, got a belly-full and then had to row back over the estuary.

"And by the time I got back, the rowboat was full of water," says Deaker, 73.

A close mate staying at their house said to him: "You're killing yourself, mate."

"And my wife, she had on a number of occasions said to me, you're a totally different person when you drink than when you are sober. She just looked distraught.

"I thought, 'I've got to do something'."

Deaker returned to Auckland and sought help from Presbyterian minister Owen Baragwanath.

"I said to him that I was in trouble. And I was a very unhappy person."

Deaker says he laid out all his problems, including not reaching his sporting potential, professional and now family strife.

He then asked Baragwanath if he thought he was an alcoholic.

"He looked at me and said, 'Murray, I've listened to you for an hour. Tell me what problems you've got now which are not associated with alcohol?'

"I thought — every problem I've got is alcohol-based.

"And I've never drunk since."

Deaker, who recalls first getting drunk at 16, says he had liked the fun and companionship of social drinking "and the fact it probably gave me confidence that I didn't have".

He was a secondary school teacher throughout the 1970s and he kept drinking, aside from a period in 1971 when he stopped to train for the New Zealand Teachers rugby side.

"All my performances in everything I did were booze-affected.

"It brought out the extremes in me. So instead of being confident, I became arrogant. Instead of having sensitivity, I would become over-emotional. Instead of holding strong opinions, I would become violent."

But after becoming sober in 1978, he got clarity – literally just a few days later.

Opening the batting for Rodney in a Dargaville Shield cricket match, he scored a century.

Facing the first ball, "I looked up and for the very first time for probably 10 years, I could see the seam.

"I'd only had a week off the booze and I got 100, and I thought, 'Mate this is amazing'."

Deaker says he shouted a dozen beers after the match but when asked why he wasn't drinking any, he made up an excuse he had a bet for a crate of spirits that he would stay off alcohol for three months.

When that time was nearly up he admitted to a long-time friend: "There's been no bet. I'm an alcoholic.

"He said, 'It's taken you a long time to work that out mate, because we've all known that for so long'."

Deaker says the support he has had from family and friends to quit booze and stay sober has been 100 per cent.

"I could not have done it on my own."

His life after quitting alcohol has been beyond his wildest dreams.

"I've enjoyed good health, I've enjoyed success in my profession, wonderful family relationships. I've got good friends."

Deaker won best sports presenter at the Radio Awards seven times, and in 2009 he received the Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to broadcasting.

Deaker tries to live his life by the principles of a 12-step programme, which outlines a course of action for recovery from addiction.

"[I] try and be a better person every day, because I've been given a second chance. And I've embraced it.

"On the principles of one day at a time, you piece together 40 years of sobriety."

Deaker says alcohol abuse is responsible for crime, violence, and death on our roads.

But there is a lack of willingness to admit the extent of our drinking culture or deal with it.

"We hear people say, ''Oh, the boys just had a few beers'. A few beers in that context means far too much, often."

In the way that anti-smoking lobby groups had tackled smoking rates, he hoped for action "to attack the booze culture of New Zealanders and to turn that around".

Alcoholics Anonymous is one group widely recognised for effectively helping people achieve sobriety, he says.

NEW ZEALAND'S first official AA group meeting was held in dentist Alf Joughin's Devonport surgery in June 1948.

Joughin's brother-in-law, a doctor aware Alf needed help for his alcoholism, had heard about Ian MacEwan, AA's first member in New Zealand.

Singer and songwriter Jordan Luck was able to quit his heavy drinking six years ago. Photo / Peter Meecham
Singer and songwriter Jordan Luck was able to quit his heavy drinking six years ago. Photo / Peter Meecham

In the waiting room, MacEwan picked up the Reader's Digest and read about AA, which was founded in Ohio by stockbroker Bill Wilson and surgeon Bob Smith.

He corresponded with AA in New York and in 1946 Wilson appointed him New Zealand's AA representative.

MacEwan travelled the country sharing the organisation's message. His first success was with Joughin, who became sober and stayed that way for the following four decades until his death.

There are now 464 weekly meetings of AA groups throughout the country, 139 of them in Auckland. There are an estimated 4000 successfully recovering members nationwide.

One of those with most cause to celebrate is 94-year-old Bluey - AA members are only identified by their first names - who was helped off alcohol by Joughin and has been sober for the past 63 years.

Joining the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy in 1941 at 17, Bluey survived the sinking of his ship by a U-boat. But his introduction to rum while in service in World War II would later nearly prove his undoing.

Bluey says he didn't have alcohol before the navy, and initially had lime juice because he was too young for the tots of rum handed out.

It became a problem when he returned home after the war and alcohol was more readily available.

He says he ended up in fights when he'd been drinking - one time he "took on two policemen ... came off second best ... I finished up in the lock-up."

It was also destructive on his home life. Instead of being with his wife and their three young sons, he'd be out drinking.

It was recommended he seek help from Joughin; "I asked him, what the hell's wrong with me?

"He said you're allergic to it [alcohol]."

Joughin advised him to read AA's The Big Book, describing how to recover from alcoholism, and attend AA meetings.

"Which I did. Shortly after I saw Alf, I had my last drink."

He has attended AA meetings weekly in many countries through his more than six decades of sobriety.

He also went on to havea successful career including a number of positions of public responsibility. "Positions I would not have been able to manage had I been drinking."

Auckland AA member Paul says weekly meetings, attended by a handful to 60-plus people each, run for about an hour.

Ages range from early 20s to mid-90s, and run the gamut of New Zealand society.

"I've met judges. I've met gang members. The common denominator is they've got a problem with the grog.

"For each alcoholic who stops drinking, untold numbers of families, friends, neighbours and employers, as well as healthcare, psychiatric, social and probation professionals also benefit."

Paul, who had been problem-drinking for five years after a series of emotional shocks, thought he was suffering from early dementia when he joined AA a decade ago because his memory had started to deteriorate.

"But when I stopped drinking, my memory came back."

He has been sober for eight years now.

Those who tend to remain sober are those who continue to attend the AA meetings – the heart of the programme, really, he says.

"It's a lifelong thing, but it's done on a day-to-day basis."

Meetings are very therapeutic, he says.

"There's a tremendous amount of unconditional love that goes on. There's a tremendous amount of support for new people coming in.

"It has enabled me to start a new life."

Kiwi booze culture

• 1 in 5 adults drink alcohol in a way that could harm themselves or others.

• Hazardous drinking rates higher in men (27 per cent) than in women (12 per cent).

• Rates of hazardous drinking are highest in ages 18-24 (33 per cent).

• In the year to June 2017 more than 4000 people were hospitalised because of alcohol.

• The highest rate for females is in the 10-19 age group, highest for males is 20-29.

• In the year to December 2017, total volume of alcoholic beverage for consumption rose .5 per cent, to 476m litres (2 standard drinks a day for each adult).

• The average annual consumption is equal to 8.7 litres of pure alcohol per person (aged 15-plus), behind Australia, 9.7, UK, 9.4 and the US, 8.9.

• 464 weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

• AA's 70-year milestone will be held at Takapuna Grammar School on June 30 - chosen as it's the closest venue to the first meeting that could accommodate such a huge celebration.