Suicide, Alcohol, 18

Last week at the Cutting Edge conference the Ministry of Health’s new Director of Mental Health, Dr John Cranshaw, spoke about the Government and ministry priorities in the addiction sector. It was an interesting talk.

Dr Cranshaw pointed out that New Zealand has the second highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD and that alcohol is the major factor in youth suicide.

Recently we have been having a nation-wide debate about alcohol. For the most part the brouhaha around purchase age has been a smoke screen for the alcohol industry to hide behind, diverting attention from the quantifiably more important issues around alcohol price, marketing, and availability.

The vote passed. It was a conscience vote. MPs voted to keep the purchase age of alcohol at 18.

We know New Zealand has an appalling youth suicide rate. We know alcohol is the predominant factor in youth suicide. Why did the link between these two issues not get more prominence? As was reported today:

“Eighty teenagers between 15 and 19 took their own lives, up from 56 the year before, according to statistics released by Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean.

[Associate Minister of Health Peter] Dunne says the Government and communities must work “tirelessly” to help prevent suicides.

“Twice as many people die by suicide each year as die on the roads, and society needs to be placing the same emphasis on reducing the suicide rate as we have on reducing the road toll,” Mr Dunne said.”

Eighty teenagers.

In a Matters of Substance article entitled ‘Risk Factor‘, Elle Hunt reported that New Zealand addiction, mental health, and alcohol specialsts are in favour of aligning law that governs the sale and consumption of alcohol with the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy.

Curbing the prevalence of binge drinking behaviour in society would be a definite step in the right direction. But for as long as it’s more taboo to talk about suicide than it is to drink to a point where it’s a real risk, we’ve got our priorities wrong.

What really annoyed me was the joy with which Keep it 18 supporters reveled in disregarding the harm — such as its clear contribution to our horrendous youth suicide rate — caused by alcohol. Could raising the purchase age have helped stop some of the 80 or so youths who will commit suicide in the next year? Yes. Could it help reduce the harm caused to youth? Yes.

Delaying the ability for youth to buy alcohol by two years is a minor inconvenience for people if it means we could help save even one of those lives.

We can’t go back and relitigate the vote on purchase age, and we should not. Alcohol law has for too long been made in an ad hoc fashion. It is good that we seemingly have consensus on this issue now. What we can do is make sure that the Alcohol Reform Bill gets it right. It needs to address the low price of alcohol. It needs to address the widespread marketing of alcohol. It needs to address the saturation availability of alcohol.

By addressing these three factors — and actually talking about the massive harms, such as suicide, alcohol causes in our communities — it is likely we will be able to reduce our youth suicide rate.

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