Has alcoholism become New Zealand's accepted addiction?

It's easy to forget alcohol is the most widely available and consumed recreational drug in New Zealand - and is therefore the drug that causes Kiwis and their families the most harm.

To look at it statistically, the New Zealand Drug Foundation says alcohol causes more harm in this country than illegal drugs methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, acid and heroin combined.

The organisation, who are at the true coalface of alcohol abuse along with police and health workers, told Newshub that 80 percent of New Zealanders are regularly drinking alcohol. Addiction to it is still a massive problem in our society, affecting not only the homeless and those in poverty but Kiwis at the other end of the wealth spectrum and everywhere in between.

So, how do we drink compared to the rest of the world?

Has alcoholism become New Zealand's accepted addiction?

As you can see, New Zealanders now consume less alcohol per capita than many other countries, but everyone over the age of 15 is still drinking 8.7L of alcohol here each year.

Russia is the reigning champion of alcohol consumption, with a per capita swig of 13.8L, while our friends in Australia, the UK and US are all drinking in greater amounts than we are.

Kiwis used to have the reputation of being heavy drinkers – and perhaps we still do.

We certainly love a tipple or two, but our tastes have gone from enjoying three or four mass produced beer brands in the 1960s to producing and consuming some of the best wines, craft beers and vodkas on the planet.

The alcohol industry has become a big player in the New Zealand economy.

  • If you are concerned about your own or another person's alcohol use, you could try calling the Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797) for confidential help. 

But what happens when Kiwis can’t stop drinking?

Newshub spoke to Sheila, a 30-something Aucklander who stopped drinking completely when she was 25, because she realized her alcohol addiction was ruining her life.

"People began slowly suggesting to me that maybe there was a problem there, but I didn’t really want to hear it.

"What tipped me over the edge was waking up one morning on a Tuesday with a terrible hangover, after promising myself that I wouldn’t go out the night before, and that's when I realized I had no control over it anymore," she says.

"That was the main thing that lead me to start looking at stopping."

Sheila says she grew up in a New Zealand where it was completely normal for people to get incredibly drunk, and she began stealing bottles of booze from her parent's liquor cabinet when she was only 14.

She also drunk heavily while attending university.

"It was acceptable to get really drunk at uni, and for someone who's a drinker, it's actually really, really easy for people not to bat an eyelid about what is really anti-social behaviour. It's very normalized."

Sheila's heavy drinking continued as she entered the workforce, but again, her love for alcohol was largely accepted by others.

Drunk Woman
Shelia says she would often binge drink until she passed out. (Getty)

"If you turn up at work and say, 'I went out the night before and got really, really piss drunk, and I have no idea what happened' people are, like, 'Wow, that sounds like a really good night.'"

While New Zealand society has tried to tackle its alcohol problems with a myriad of TV ad campaigns to help raise awareness of the harm, Sheila - now standing on the outside of our alcohol bubble looking in - believes our thirst for alcohol is still just as fierce.

"I don't think the drinking culture 10 years ago is any different from what it is now.  

"It's absolutely acceptable to be a heavy drinker in New Zealand.

"I've tried meth, and it was never my thing, but alcohol brought me to my knees, and I think we need to realize as a society that alcohol is a carcinogenic drug. It's a very, very strong, potent drug that we've normalized and actually have a huge problem with, but we're not willing to face that."

Is it possible to fit into New Zealand society and not drink?

Sheila says a big part of her recovery has been keeping away from situations where alcohol is being consumed, and that means she can't attend many social gatherings such as her work Christmas party.

"You do often feel a bit on the outside, because that's how a lot of Kiwis bond - over getting really pissed together or going to the pub and that sort of thing.

"So for me it's like, 'Well, that doesn't look attractive for me any more', because people don't realize that one drink really effects how people act, and it is actually a really strong drug, so when I see people who are drinking, sometimes I do get that pang of, like, 'I miss it', but then I don't miss the consequences."

Sheila says she has had to relearn how to socialize and be comfortable in her own skin - and to be confident enough not to need alcohol.

People toasting at a bar
Sheila says she finds social gatherings difficult because of the liberal use of alcohol. (Getty)

Her marriage ended in 2016 and she’s now begun dating. That’s presenting her with a new set of challenges.

"I have to explain to people often that no, I don't drink. And often people are really, really surprised and can't quite get their head around how I would socialize or how I would have fun without enjoying a nice glass of wine.

"People are often quite uncomfortable, and will defend their own drinking because I think there's this fear that, 'Oh god, that person might judge me.'

"We do not recognise that the influence alcohol has on our culture is that we have a culture of people who use alcohol as a social lubricant, but also as a way of managing our feelings."

Why is drinking heavily considered acceptable behaviour?

Ben Birks Ang is the National Youth Services Adviser for the New Zealand Drug Foundation and Odyssey Auckland.

Shadow of drunk man and bottles
The NZ Drug Foundation says although drinking numbers are down - alcohol related harms are increasing. (Getty)

He says while the latest data suggests New Zealanders aren’t drinking as much as they used to, we're still struggling to understand when we've consumed too much.

"I think there's a big degree of acceptance that experiencing and living with harms or additional challenges from alcohol is part of life in New Zealand.

"Most of the people that I see drink alcohol see themselves as responsible alcohol drinkers, and most of them are able to adapt their alcohol use when they notice harms.

"But if the harms that they notice are very accepted and are just part of life, and part of that life is where you have days where you feel hung-over and can't do anything because of it, then it becomes much harder for everyday New Zealanders to say, 'What is my level of drinking'?"

Young people are drinking because they think they 'have' to

Mr Ang says a lot of younger New Zealanders are struggling to curb their drinking, because they see their peers also consuming heavily.

"Particularly for young adults, it's more socially acceptable to say, 'I got wasted last night, and I'm hung-over today' than it is to say, 'I don’t want to drink'.

"But there's a larger number of teenagers that I speak to who are saying that they actually don't really want to drink.

"For them, it's more about having fun with their friends, but we still have an assumption that all young people want to drink, and I think if there's a message for parents we can get out of that, [it] is: Don't assume that your teenagers want to drink.

"That's the seed of hope that we have in our communities - that we may be able to change this drinking culture that is causing so much harm to New Zealand."