Most drunk patients turning up to Christchurch Hospital’s emergency department – both before and after legislation aimed at reducing harm – got intoxicated at home or private parties, found researchers.

But there was a trend towards more of the alcohol-impaired and injured patients buying their alcohol in liquor stores or supermarkets.

The University of Otago, Christchurch study, funded by the Health Promotion Agency and published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal, examined alcohol-related ED attendances in 2013 (before the provisions of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 came into full effect) and again in 2017 at Christchurch Hospital which is one of Australasia’s busiest EDs.

The research found little change since the Act which aimed to improve New Zealand’s drinking culture and reduce the harm caused by excessive drinking.  Major planks of the Act including maximum trading hours for licensed premises (like pubs, bars and hotels), banning dairies from selling alcohol and allow local bodies to develop Local Alcohol Policies (LAP) for alcohol licensing.

The Christchurch study involved medical students interviewing people coming into Christchurch Hospital ED at different times of the day and night over a fortnight in late November to early December in 2013 and again in 2017. (Both periods included two major ‘social events’ associated with drinking – New Zealand Cup Day and “Crate Day”.)

The research, led by Dr James Foulds, found that in both 2013 and 2017 that about 70 per cent had had their last drink before turning up at ED at a private location.  The number who had bought their alcohol from a liquor store or supermarket had increased from 61.7% in 2013 to nearly 80% in 2017 – with the majority (up from 41.7% in 2013 to 56% in 2017) having bought their drinks from a liquor store.

Foulds said the increase in people buying their alcohol from a liquor store was the most significant change revealed by the study that’s purpose was to understand the burden of alcohol on the ED and to measure any changes following the passing of the 2012 Act.

The research said while a key part of the Act was allowing city and district councils to develop their own licensing policies (LAPs) many councils had met legal obstacles, particularly from liquor stores and supermarkets. In Christchurch, for example, the proposed new LAP was developed in 2013 but by late 2017 had not been introduced and was put on hold in 2018.

“Similar problems have been encountered in other regions, and it has recently been argued that the maximum trading hours provisions have been the only element of the Act that has significantly altered the alcohol environment to date, because ‘the strength of LAPs has been muted by alcohol industry appeals’,” said the researcher’s NZMJ article.

Foulds says the study suggests policies designed to reduce alcohol-related harm should target all sources of alcohol, particularly off-licences.

“This could be achieved via Local Alcohol Policies placing controls on outlet density and opening hours for these venues.”

Other study findings:

  • Alcohol-impaired and injured patients ranged from 14 to 87 years in age
  • There were 114 participants in 2013 and 96 in 2017
  • The number under 18 remained low at 9 (5.5%) in 2013 and 5 (3.6%) in 2017
  • About one in 14 ED attendances during the research period in both 2013 and 2017 were there immediately after alcohol consumption or as a short-term effect of drinking.
  • The number of drinks consumed, rates of pre-drinking and place of last drink did not change between surveys.
  • In 2017, about one quarter of patients in the study had consumed more than 15 standard drinks before admission to ED. Eighteen per cent of them had consumed more than 20 drinks.

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