Otago University researchers are calling for government action on reducing alcohol-related harm, as a new study shows a large number of New Zealand women drink alcohol during pregnancy despite evidence of potential harm to their babies.
Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine Doug Sellman and Chair of Preventive and Social Medicine, Professor Jennie Connor, ask in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, "Why is alcohol in the government's 'too hard basket'?"
They write that for government to leave alcohol control in the too-hard basket, often labelled as "not our first priority", suggests there is a substantial unnamed barrier to action.
"In utero alcohol-induced brain damage is a 'preventable tragedy', but active prevention measures by government have been sorely lacking," Professors Sellman and Connor say.
"The health, social and economic benefits of drinking less - for the country and for individuals - are clear. Don't we deserve to know why we can't have them?"
Despite multiple reports over many years of the damage that alcohol is inflicting on individuals and communities, including the critical issue of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder risk, little real action is occurring, according to the authors.
"It is as if the New Zealand population has been brainwashed and in the grips of a mass social delusion - viewing alcohol as a harmless recreational product which enhances quality of life, and thinking if you are not regularly consuming the tonic you are clearly not part of the cool and successful social mainstream, and possibly a rather 'iffy' member of society."
Professor Connor has undertaken research estimating the health effects of alcohol on the population as a whole, which found that for breast cancer a substantial proportion of the impact is in women who drink at a level that is generally socially acceptable and considered "safe" - up to two standard drinks per day.
Along with breast cancer, drinking in pregnancy is a situation where risk of harm can only be effectively lowered by modifying the drinking pattern of the population, she argues.
Professor Sellman has previously advocated for change, citing research indicating more than 70,000 alcohol-related physical and sexual assaults in New Zealand annually, up to 3000 babies born with alcohol-related brain damage annually and nearly a third of all alcohol-related deaths due to cancer.
These examples underlie the importance of population-based measures to reduce alcohol consumption overall and the need to make not being a regular drinker a socially acceptable choice, the researchers say in their editorial.
"Effective population-based measures, most importantly marketing, pricing and accessibility controls, are the best ways to achieve a reduction in alcohol-related harm, with subsequent reductions in health disparities."
However, these measures will also reduce the gains for those who profit from the heavy drinking culture of New Zealand thus the stakes are high, they say.
Professors Sellman and Connor point out there is a range of existing avenues for the current government to act to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms.
But the most important guide is a government-funded blueprint for change - the Law Commission's 2010 report on curbing the harm from alcohol, which was strongly supported by both the Labour Party and Green Party when in opposition.