Patrick Gower: On Booze - Iceland's drinking culture used to be worse than NZ's, so how can we replicate their turnaround?

  • 15/06/2022

"I look at us as a country, and I think 'why are we doing this to ourselves?'"

That was Patrick Gower's question after he spent weeks digging into New Zealand's drinking culture for On Booze, his latest documentary on New Zealand's relationship with drugs.

But as Newshub's National Correspondent learned while filming the one-hour special (now available to watch on ThreeNow), New Zealand isn't the only country that's been pondering that question.

Iceland once also had a major binge drinking problem. The Nordic island had prohibited the sale of beer for decades until 1989, when politicians opted to change the law.

Unfortunately, while it made sense to change the rules - beer was a much lower-alcohol alternative to the likes of vodka and gin, which Icelanders could still buy at their leisure - that's when everything started going downhill.

After the prohibition ended, binge drinking exploded - and by 1998 Iceland had the worst youth alcohol statistics in Europe, with 43 percent of 15-16-year-olds reporting that they'd been binge drinking in the last month.

But the nation's drinking problem improved markedly in just a few years, thanks in large part to a programme called Youth in Iceland.

The brainchild of US psychologist Harvey Milkman, the programme gave Icelandic teens the equivalent of NZ$400 in subsidies to spend on leisure activities. The simple idea was that if you replace the chemical high of alcohol with the natural high of something you enjoy, you're less likely to binge drink.

Another feature of the programme is the introduction of curfews for teenagers, managed by friendly parent patrol groups. And there were other major changes too: they banned alcohol advertising, supermarkets could only stock low-alcohol beer, and the drinking age was raised to 20.

It's been a huge success. By 2020, Iceland had transformed from having the worst teen drinking rates in Europe to the best - just 7 percent, down from that high of 43 percent in 1998.

As it stands, New Zealand teens drink three times more than they do in Iceland, and the middle-aged still consume way more alcohol than they should, with one in five drinking hazardously.

The main thing the Icelandic model has shown is that big ideas work.

So can New Zealand learn from Iceland's turnaround?

Watch the full Patrick Gower: On Booze documentary on-demand at ThreeNow. And the conversation around booze continues when Gower hosts Newshub Talks Booze live at 8:30pm Wednesday on Three and ThreeNow.