“So what have you got planned for the weekend?” my father enquired of the girl at the cafe. “I’m gonna get smashed” she announced with an air of keen anticipation.

Superannuitants do the expression of fish-faced disbelief better than any other segment of society. Their worn teeth and saggy jowls seem to suit a jaw line that has yielded to the forces of gravity. So my father stood. In his more than 65 years of affable conversation, this was a new experience. It was the sort of moment that
might provide the first indications of Alzheimer’s.

The conversation ended there, as a reply eluded him entirely.

Hello, my name is Hawke’s Bay and I have a drinking problem. The symptoms are everywhere.

The Dominion Post (23/7/11) reports ‘drunken mayhem’ at the races. The local District Licensing Agency heard opposition to Hawke’s Bay Racing’s liquor license on the basis that they have allowed alcohol-fueled ‘debauchery’. The staggering thing is that this was the first time there had been formal objections to
their license. On the rare occasion I have attended the races, I’ve seen much the same as the objectors – legless drunks in all their leering, slurring vulgarity. If you have visited the local bars and restaurants at the end of raceday, you’ll know what I mean.

Similar scenes can be witnessed if you have the misfortune to be out in the wee hours in Havelock North. Hordes of drunken revellers spew out of bars around closing time, quenching their desire for fish’n’chips and fisticuffs that cannot be satisfied within.

Most disturbing is that young women now seem to have a ‘go for coma’ approach to drinking. Drunken men are boorish. Drunken women are … I don’t think there is a word for it. No one seems to have needed one until recently.

The Law Commission recently released a report entitled Alcohol in our Lives, which makes a number of recommendations. Much public discussion has ensued, with two keen accusations – there are too many liquor outlets and alcohol is too cheap.

Typically we seem to blame everything but the people involved. Do you really think that alcohol problems will be solved by drinkers having to travel one extra kilometre to a liquor outlet? Similarly, alcohol is not ‘ultra-cheap’ in New Zealand as campaigners would have you think.

Our cultural roots with alcohol

The roots of our relationship with alcohol stem from European roots. Throughout Europe alcohol is generally much cheaper than it is here. Across southern Europe wine dominates and is often cheaper than water to buy. Similarly, bottled beer in the northern countries can be bought for $2/litre, while in NZ a similar product is $5/litre. The dense populations in Europe mean the distance to a liquor outlet is also much less than in NZ. Despite this, outside the UK, you will not see the scenes of public drunkenness we confront in NZ.

The exception to the ‘cheap and available’ situation across most of Europe can be found in Scandinavia. There, alcohol taxes are sky high … set at these levels to curb Nordic alcohol excesses that date back to Viking times.

The public reaction to these Scandinavian measures should serve as a warning to ‘tax and license prohibitionists’ in NZ. Innumerable households in Sweden and Norway have set up home stills where they distiland consume hard liquor in staggering quantities. As it is with all prohibitionist wowserism, the dissenting public just find another way.

The root of alcohol problems lies in a country’s culture. It’s not about prices or places, but about people. The law needs to send a message that public drunkenness is unacceptable and the moral majority need to back them up. Until 1981 public drunkenness was an offence; in 1980 there were almost 8,000 prosecutions. The problem with the law then was that it required a jury trial, ridiculous for such a minor matter.

Today some argue that drunkenness can be prosecuted as ‘disorderly behaviour’. True, but this puts offenders into the already clogged criminal justice system. Conviction also results in a criminal record, which hurts your
employment prospects and makes international travel problematic.

As a result, police generally take a ‘de-tox and release’ approach to drunks. The law, by word and action, give the message that drunkenness is OK – we’ll even have people to look after you if you fall asleep in the gutter. This permissive nonsense has to stop. If the police have to remove drunks from a venue or scrape them up off the streets, there need to be consequences. The Hospitality Association sensibly suggests whacking offenders with an ‘instant fine’ the likes of what you get for speeding. It’s time for a much needed law change.

It’s also time to demand some accountability from our licensing authorities, our bars and Hawke’s Bay Racing. Most of all we need to address the excesses of our friends and families. It’s not OK to drink yourselves into a stupor, and those of us who are offended by such things need to stop grimacing in silence.

Köbánya-Kispest

The thing we have in common with Nordic binge drinking culture is that it is underpinned by a life of privilege. This drinking is mainly self indulgent, recreational debauchery.

But in parts of NZ you can find the equivalent of the Slavic drinking culture, based on poverty and personal misery. It is a desperately bleak affair borne of despair and a bleak Russian winter. This drinking culture exists in all the countries occupied by the USSR post-WWII. I’ve had the misfortune to see it up close.

My incurable immigrant frugality drives me to cheap public transport to and from airports around the world. On one freezing winter morning, this necessitated three trains and a bus – last change, Köbánya-Kispest. “It’s a dangerous place” I had heard, but my Kiwi naïveté didn’t comprehend. “The building itself is ridden with rust and dirt from the shoes of countless passengers and the bowels of countless bums and drunks,” wrote one author.

That morning I found as much. My 5:30 a.m. arrival was ill-advised. The stench of cheap alcohol and vomit greeted me as I dragged my bag up the stairs at the end of the platform. These odorous fluids were not spilt so much as exhaled from the lungs and stomachs of the station residents.

The long exit corridor was lined with the sordid bodies of the homeless. They lay sleeping or dead, I couldn’t tell, amongst the fetid rags and newspapers of their bedding.

There were eyes in that darkness. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. I knew they were watching and contemplating the contents of my wallet. Towards the end the light improved and I saw the only face not cowering in darkness or facing the wall. My eyes dwelt on it a moment, looking for signs of life through his matted grey hair and beard. There were none. His wet trouser front and pool of dampness confirmed he’d
pissed himself. Dead men piss themselves. Drunks do too. Here is the final resting place of destructive drinking.

I don’t want to ruin your fun. Have a drink or two; I don’t mind. But for those 20-somethings out there,
know this: In ten years’ time one of your more indulgent mates will have a string of failed relationships, a history of violence, or they will have died in the crumpled weck of a car. And homeless drunks will still make their beds on the freezing concrete floors of Köbánya-Kispest.

Go easy on the grog.

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