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Binge drinking is dangerous behaviour that is common in Aotearoa. This is the result of generations of change within society, culture, and the law.

Signs, symptoms and statistics

Binge drinking refers to drinking a lot of alcohol within a short period of time.

Drinking a lot in one sitting can lead to acting more recklessly. It puts a person and those around them at a greater risk of getting into accidents, and:

  • poor decision making, such as drunk driving
  • alcohol poisoning, vomiting, passing out and hangovers
  • blackouts and memory loss
  • aggressive behaviour, violence and criminal offending. 

To reduce your chances of these behaviours, you can follow our low-risk drinking advice.

Today's binge drinking culture

While you may not be drinking every day, we do see a lot of binge drinking in Aotearoa, with our recorded numbers being higher than in Australia or the UK. 

In Aotearoa,

  • around one in three men between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely to binge drink at least once a week
  • almost 19% of women between 18 and 24 are recorded to be binge drinking weekly
  • while Māori and Pacific people are less likely to drink at all, those who do drink tend to have more.

What we can learn from this evidence is:

  • not drinking daily still means that a weekly binge is part of normal culture, especially for young people
  • at least half our Māori population are under 25, which means our rangatahi have a likely chance of being exposed to alcohol harm.

There are many factors behind this. Being in environments that accept this habit and being able to buy cheap alcohol means that young people are making financial choices like ‘preloading’ before going into town, or ‘side-loading’ at bars.

We can play a role in breaking the cycle of alcohol harm. It can be challenging to address something that’s normalised in society, but it helps to understand and acknowledge the history, environments, and laws that got us here.

Our history

Māori did not consume alcohol until it was introduced by European settlers. Many of these settlers were men who found drinking brought them comfort and energy. 

Binge drinking was a common habit in the 1800s. There was no law enforcement for drinking before Te Tiriti was signed. Convictions for drunkenness more than doubled than the numbers in Britain in the 1870s.

Māori were not fond of alcohol, and called spirits ‘waipiro’, which translates to stinking water’. 

Licences were required to sell alcohol from 1840, and there were measures to restrict sales in Māori areas over the next few decades. Māori fought hard to support these restrictions. In 1884, liquor licences were banned from the King Country.

This era was filled with groups who fought for awareness of the violence and distress caused by alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and New Zealand Alliance wanted full legal prohibition. Around half of the voting public wanted alcohol completely banned. 

We faced an economic depression in the interwar years. As a nation, we drank less and there were fewer pubs overall in the 1920s. Pubs were also closed by 6pm in 1918. 

The economy started improving by the late 1930s, and beer drinking was becoming popular again. Pubs were still closing by 6pm, leading to what is now referred to as ‘the beer swill’ or ‘the 6 o’clock swill’. 

This refers to the hour between 5 and 6pm, when patrons had one hour from the end of the work day to drink as much as they could before heading home. The pressure was on for bartenders to serve their customers. Pub conditions at this time were hostile, with no chairs, pipes used to fill jugs, and men drinking and shouting at one another. 

Some of our older whānau may still remember the 6 o’clock swill. It is often referred to as a point in history where we saw drinking a lot in one sitting as the norm.

Then and now

Aotearoa has been through a historical period of openly addressing alcohol harm, but this was short-lived. What persists is the availability of alcohol. 

By the late 60s, we’ve seen laws to lower the purchase age and allow bars to close later. We faced pressure as our cities grew and we saw tourism as vital to our economy. 

Getting alcohol became as easy as buying groceries. In 1989, people were able to buy wine in supermarkets. The drinking purchase age was lowered to 18, and beer was available to buy at the local supermarket in 1999. 

Our environments have changed to allow alcohol to be easily bought, sold, and seen. We drink when we go to festivals, play sports, gather with whānau, celebrate, and mourn.  

Through the decades, Aotearoa has normalised a culture of drinking to enjoy and connect, but we can still address the harms that exist within it to ourselves, our whānau, and our community. Learn how you can take action for your community.