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Low alcohol beer: the unlikely public health champion

Did you know that all licensed venues in New Zealand are required to sell a low alcohol beer? I didn't. And until last year I wouldn't have cared because who in their right mind would drink low alcohol beers? They taste dreadful and are an inefficient way to get drunk.

Then I decided I was bored of getting drunk. I won't go into the details but there was an event which we refer to among my close friends as 'The Regret' - after that I lost interest in drinking my body's weight in beer, wine and tequila every big night out. Another major flaw in the 'big nights' strategy was the two-day hangover. Really wrecked my productivity, although it did support such local businesses as Auckland Co-op Taxis and McDonald's New North Road.

Low alcohol beer became the secret sauce to my sober Big Mac. It turns out that some of the brews even taste great now. The difficult thing about socialising in New Zealand as a non-drunk is that most of our social events are centred around alcohol. More about that later but for me, because I love the taste of beer and couldn't get enthused about the OJ or tepid water on offer for abstainers, low alcohol beer was the perfect way to have it all.

It's a dream strategy - you have something which looks and tastes like beer, there's a little thrill of slight intoxication, but you can still drive home because it’s self-limiting. Based on my extensive empirical investigations, it’s very hard to drink buckets of the stuff. The lower percentage concentration of alcohol seems to stop me from drinking litres and litres to the absence of any good effect like you do (like I do) with the higher percentage products.

So in the tradition of nanny state policy-making I've had some great ideas about how everyone can be forced into making the exact same life choices I've made.

Just kidding. But I do think that if we want to shift our problematic relationship with alcohol in New Zealand, we need to consider harm reduction as the main priority. And the relationship is problematic, we know this. It’s not just the inescapable ubiquity of alcohol-soaked social occasions for corporate types and the suburban middle-class - it’s the proliferation of liquor retailers in poorer communities and the intransigence of local authorities in responding to those communities’ concerns.

It’s the impact of hazardous drinking on mental health, emergency department admissions and violence. I’m not suggesting my newfound enthusiasm for low alcohol beer as a solution to my very middle-class alcohol-related problems will be a quick fix for these things. Increased drug and alcohol treatment funding (noticeably and disappointingly absent from the recent Budget) is needed. And some local alcohol policies with teeth and some common sense from the Advertising Standards Authority to act quickly to limit misleading campaigns like the recent, dreadful ‘Beer the Beautiful Truth’ which seemed to suggest beer is a healthy nutritious product.

There is some good news too. There’s a generational shift happening in alcohol consumption. Youth drinking is decreasing. Young people are remaining alcohol-free until later in their teens, and they’re reporting less hazardous drinking behaviour. It’s still higher in the 18-24 age bracket than any other, but they have decreased from 10 years ago and rates have dropped dramatically in under 18s. A friend of mine told me her 19-year-old daughter might buy one or two drinks on a night out, mainly to get a perfect selfie with a cocktail, and then if any guys try to buy her drinks she tells them she’d rather have some fries. A) That girl is a legend and B) The kids are going to be all right, eh.

This isn't the purest public health message. I can see future career opportunities drying up as I write these words. Obviously alcohol is a toxin and it does terrible things to us and puts us at risk of terrible things. Here's the thing though - the biggest drinkers I know are middle-aged, middle-class people who know all there is to know about the risks of alcohol (they read The Listener) and they drink heaps anyway. This is supported by the Ministry of Health’s data which tells us that problem drinking among 45-54 year-olds has almost doubled over 10 years. Some wonderful work has been done by people like Lotta Dann over at www.livingsober.org.nz and the personal stories like this extraordinary piece by Nadine Hura show the impact of the cultural norms around our approach to alcohol. For those wanting to ditch alcohol completely I highly recommend seeking out supportive communities like the one Lotta (Mrs D) has formed.

But in my view we should also be realistic and realise we won't shift all problem drinkers into abstinence, or at least not the first time around. Why not meet them halfway with some good quality lower percentage booze, perhaps at a lower cost than other products, maybe make them pay a bit more if they really want to obliterate their livers with higher percentage alcohol and see if that shifts the culture. You don't need to crank the dial too far to get a decent effect. Even a small reduction in alcohol consumption is good for your health and maybe it’ll eventually mean we don’t always need to get pissed just to hang out.

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