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Q+A: Dr Paul Quigley interviewed by Paul Holmes

Published: 2:11PM Sunday May 16, 2010 Source: Q+A

Dr PAUL QUIGLEY interviewed by PAUL HOLMES

PAUL The shocked and grieving parents of James Webster say they will never be happy again, they cannot believe their 16 year old boy is dead. James was at a party and had a bottle of Vodka then passed out, his death was unusual, but such binge drinking is not. New Zealanders spend 85 million dollars a week on alcohol. Now James' story, that very sad story has resonated with us right around the country, and his parents are hoping that from his death some good may come. It so happens that the government are at the moment considering a major report on alcohol from the Law Commission, it was released last month, it showed excessive drinking is a major cause of murder, domestic violence, health problems, the list goes on and on and on, and the Law Commission included 153 recommendations on what they think needs to change, and we'll know some time in June just how many of those recommendations Justice Minister, Simon Power, and the government will run with. But Dr Paul Quigley fears they won't go far enough. Now Dr Paul Quigley is the Emergency Medicine Specialist in Wellington Hospital, and he's an international expert on alcohol abuse, and he deals with the drunks and the men and women. He supports the Law Commission's recommendations indeed. His advice is quoted throughout the report. Dr Quigley is at Wellington Hospital working this morning, a very good morning to you.

DR PAUL QUIGLEY - Emergency Medical Specialist

Good morning Paul, and thank you for the opportunity.

PAUL It's a great pleasure Paul. So what happened at the hospital last night, how big was your alcohol toll last night?

DR PAUL Well it was a busy night in hospital last night, the day has been busy and we actually had a heavy load of normal patients, the patients you know with heart attacks, pneumonia and so on, but despite that there was still ten patients in total in fact when we looked through, who had no other real reason to be here than the health effects from excessive alcohol, either through being semi conscious and just plain drunk, through to injuries. We've got some broken legs in there this morning and a couple of smashed faces, and they were all additional loads to what was already a busy night/

PAUL And I take it these are young people?

DR PAUL Well they're not that young, in fact one of the patients that gave sort of the biggest trouble was in his mid 30s, and that's and that's certainly something we see, that across the spectrum of the alcohol related harm, the unconscious ones are often young, and that's because they're small literally, they're small in body frame, and can't tolerate the high levels of alcohol. But when it comes to the violence and some of the injury group, that's often an older group in the mid 20s to 30s.

PAUL What about binge drinking Paul, I mean you've done some stats I know over recent years at Wellington Hospital. Have you any doubts that it's getting worse?

DR PAUL Oh no, it's certainly getting worse. The effects that we're seeing here are we've had a steady increase in the presentation of those that are just plain drunk, where they're just you know unconscious because they've drunk too much. That has risen every year, and it rises by you know a total of about 40 or 50 patients a year. Now that doesn't sound much, but don't forget it only occurs on two nights of a week, so that basically means that each year we've had an additional person, unconscious person in our department presenting, and at the moment our average per weekend is nine unconscious people.

PAUL Right, and back in 2004 it was four, so that's the average this year isn't it, nine of them coming in just plain drunk. I understand from your stats that 16 to 20 year olds comprise 20% of people coming to hospital on Friday and Saturday nights, and it's normally only 5% on weeknights and that's alcohol.

DR PAUL That's right and that just shows that it's a completely preventable illness. You know in that age group 16 to 20 you should be at the healthiest time of your life, you don't have any of the consequences that occur as you get older and older, you're young and fit and healthy, so you shouldn't be in my hospital, and then what we're seeing is on those Friday Saturday nights suddenly they are here, and it's from a preventable cause, and that preventable cause is excessive alcohol.

PAUL Girls and young women, you're noticing a rise in drunkenness in girls and young women, in fact you call it the era of the female drunk.

DR PAUL Yeah exactly, and in fact it's one of those statements where I get into a bit of trouble, you know women are not men, we're not actually equal specially when it comes to physiology, and when girls go out there and try and drink like their male partners, or in fact what we often see is female workers drinking with their male working partners, the thing is that alcohol will win, that women cannot consume an equivalent amount of alcohol and stay as sober as their male partner, they don't have the same body volume, they're smaller in stature, and so the percentage alcohol in their bloodstream will always get to be higher, and they'll fall over drunk. We've not seen anything like it before, and they come in and they're a mess, you know I talk about the little black dress and poos and wees, because that's all it is, they're dressed to the nines, but now they're covered in vomit and poos and wees.

PAUL Alright Dr Quigley, you have some very definite views about what you want the politicians to do, you say this is a moment in time where the politicians have really got to take some action. You tell the politicians this morning what they've got to do, what you believe as a practitioner, we've got to see, what are the specifics - an increase in the price of booze?

DR PAUL Definitely, I mean the international standard throughout the world and economic evaluations even done in this country, show that by rising the price of alcohol it's a win win situation, it costs the government nothing to do, it takes the top end off heavy consumption, and it actually returns more money to the government in the end, in the way of sort of revenue, which then can be distributed for things like healthcare and prevention and education. So it's a win win, and it has the greatest impact for the least input, and it also makes it a focus for everyone, I mean you know the problem at the moment is there seems to be this habit of wanting to just focus on the outsiders and say it's all their fault, it's all their fault, but it's not, it's everyone's fault, and by increasing the price across the board it suddenly becomes your problem Paul, cos your drink will go up a little bit, my problem cos my beer will get a little bit more expensive, and so I might think about it a bit more, and I might actually impart some more education or knowledge to the youth.

PAUL Finally Paul could I just get a quick yes or no off you. Should we ban alcopops or not?

DR PAUL No.

PAUL Not ban them. I think you very much indeed for your time, and for your service at the Wellington Hospital this morning.

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PAUL Is the government likely to take any notice of that, we'll speak about that with our panel. Well he doesn't say ban alcopops at all. I would ban them.

JON JOHANSSON - Political Analyst

The greatest distinction between my generation's equally you know binge drinking and the young people of today, is the access to far stronger alcohol. So surely the government can have a serious look at how they can mediate the strength of alcohol. But I have to say as a baby boomer myself that there's a certain hypocrisy here where baby boomer politicians are telling the young, who they've also told you know we've given you this right by lowering the age to 18 which puts it in line with the right to vote, and the right to join the Army and what have you. There's a certain amount of hypocrisy here, that we're saying that your behaviour is more aberrant than our own, and remember that this younger generation Paul are growing up with less stable families than what we did.

PAUL But nevertheless you're seeing the damage particularly in younger people, Paul Quigley says. What do you think Dr Brash, is it time, I mean is this a time when government now must take the reins on this?

DON BRASH - Chair 2025 Taskforce

I believe so, I've got a 17 year old son at the same school this kid died this week, and I think it's high time the government did something. I have to accept some responsibility, I voted to retain the drinking age of 18 when I was in parliament. I think in retrospect that was a mistake, 18 year olds are still at school, and that means that it's not 18 year olds drinking it's 15 and 16 year olds drinking.

PAUL Yeah but Don even when the drinking age was 21 when you and I were growing up, when it was 20, if a 15 or 14 year old wants to get boozed they can do it.

DON Absolutely right, they got boozed on beer, and not many of us got boozed on beer, it was a relatively unusual thing, and if the school 15 went off and got boozed on beer they got disciplined.

JON But if we don't trust them to drink why do we trust them to vote.

DON Well that's a separate question, the fact is 18 year olds at a high school, that's means that 15 and 16 years olds, that's the trouble, it's not 18 year olds, it's 15 and 16 year olds the trouble.

PAUL It's the tail, it's what Paul Quigley calls the tail. Helen what do you think I mean is it time to act?

HELEN KELLY - Combined Trade Unions President

Well I think it's time to do something, but I don't agree with raising the drinking age, and I think what we just saw in that interview is that you know it's the 30 year olds going in there violent, it's the 16 year old that drunk too much this week, and you know the 18 year old drinking age wouldn't have resolved either of those issues. I do think that the marketing of alcopops needs to be examined, I don't think they should be banned, but those shops that sell them look like lolly shops, they're set up as castles, they make castles out of these drinks, they deliberately market to young people.

PAUL So something's gotta be done we agree on that.

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