Does alcohol mean good fellowship and heavenly tastes, or is it a route to poverty and despair? Is gambling just the excitement of a flutter at the races, or an addiction which can become a ruinous burden? Are recreational drugs a harmless way to see life differently, or poisons which befuddle the mind and eventually kill the body? Is it always ‘time for a Capstan’; or is smoking the country’s greatest killer?
If there is one lesson that emerges from the five new stories we have just released, it is that one person’s pleasure is another person’s vice.
The history of alcohol, drugs, gambling and smoking which are told in these entries, along with a fifth entry that examines the Māori experience, is a fascinating story of changing perceptions and judgements. What were once innocent pleasures to some became addictive vices for others. Take alcohol. In the early 19th century most UK immigrants regarded alcohol as an essential food and a way of relaxing from a tough physical life. They normally drank spirits – brandy and rum, not the beer they were used to at home – but drink they did, unashamedly. In the 19th century it was only in the Māori community that alcohol was initially regarded as waipiro (foul water) and something to be avoided. However, by the end of the century public perceptions had changed. A powerful prohibition movement had emerged and the struggle between drink as pleasure and drink as vice led eventually to that strange Kiwi compromise, six o’clock closing. Eventually from the 1960s restrictions were lifted. Surely we had grown up and overcome the vicious social and personal impacts of alcohol – or so we thought until the sight of teenagers pre-loading with RTDs and then vomiting on sidewalks sparked a new perception of alcohol as vice.
Smoking has a different story. In colonial New Zealand it was fine for Pākehā men to puff away on their pipes, but not for Pākehā women. Māori made no such distinction. From the earliest times, kuia as well as kaumātua were smokers. In the first half of the 20th century, as cigarettes replaced the pipe, smoking became regarded as a universal pleasure – ‘Whatever the occasion’, as Players said. By the 1950s three-quarters of all men and a third of all women smoked. Then medical discoveries provided a new perspective, setting in motion a war on smoking as the worst of vices. Today a small minority, under a fifth of adults, smoke – although the figure is much higher among Māori women.
The drug story is also a fascinating study of changing perceptions. In the 19th century cannabis and opium were freely available, usually consumed as patent medicines – laudanum for middle-class women, Chlorodyne for the kids. The main recreational users were Chinese gold miners, but in one of the most remarkable acts of self-discipline in our history, the Chinese community petitioned to make opium illegal and succeeded in driving the addiction from their community. But New Zealand was slow in restricting drugs – cannabis was not restricted until the 1920s, and we had one of the world’s highest rates of heroin use in the 1940s. Then, just as the counter-culture began to discover dope and LSD in the late 1960s, others began to see these as dangerous vices which needed repressing. Today we have an unusual pattern – high use of cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamines, low use of heroin and cocaine – with some in the community arguing that it is time that drugs were no longer treated as vices at all.
As for gambling, here too there have been contrasts in attitude. In the early 20th century there were restrictions on bookmakers and lotteries. Then the state came in and saw gambling as a source of revenue and fun. The government, it was felt, could keep a kind of six-o’clock-closing balance between vice and pleasure. But the revenue and tourism possibilities became stronger, restrictions were eased, and now with New Zealanders spending over $30 million each week on a flutter, new perceptions of gambling have emerged. The pokies, especially, are viewed by some as a vicious industry which hurts the poor and the vulnerable.
Te Ara cannot give the final word on these matters. We have no doubt that perceptions of pleasure and of vice in these matters will continue to evolve. But for now enjoy these entries, and think about where you stand. Which are the real vices, which the innocent pleasures?