Case for Change

"Alcohol is not a traditional part of the Pacific islands’ culture. 
It was introduced to the Pacific by Western visitors such as whalers, traders and sailors, and rapidly adopted by Pacific men."
(Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand & Ministry of Health, 1997)

A significantly lower proportion of Pacific people drink alcohol when compared to non-Pacific people. However, those who drink do so more hazardously than non-Pacific drinkers. 

In the 2018 Census, 77% of Pacific people said they were associated with a religion or a religious group. Pacific people have strong social and cultural ties with their family, churches and community. Active involvement in church protects young Pacific people from binge drinking.

Churches are a good setting to engage Pacific people in activities to enhance wellbeing. 

Pacific communities experience a disproportionate amount of alcohol-related harm compared to the general population. This is in part due to the prevalence of heavy drinking. This pattern of drinking among Pacific population groups often results in more alcohol-related harms, including (from here and here):

  • Intentional injuries such as violence and self-harm
  • Unintentional injuries resulting from accidents;
  • Relationship problems;
  • Problems at work;
  • Neglect of family responsibilities;
  • Embarrassment from indulging in unusual behaviours.
  • Alcohol-related diseases or health-conditions at later stages in life.  

For Pacific young people, almost one in four Pacific students reported experiencing alcohol-related harm. The most common reported alcohol-related problems were: doing things that could get them into trouble (29%), having unsafe sex (28%), having friends and family talk with them about cutting down on their alcohol use (26%), and getting an injury as a result of their alcohol use (25%) [46].  Alcohol use also influenced their performance at school (20%).  

Spirituality and religiosity are intrinsic and essential to many Pacific cultures (see here, here and here).  

In the 2018 Census, 77% of Pacific people identified as having a religion.

Religious affiliation 2006 (%) 2013 (%) 2018 (%)
No religion 14 17.5 22.9
Buddhism 0.2 0.2 0.1
Christian 80.2 77 67.9
Hinduism 0.3 0.7 0.6
Islam 0.4 0.5 0.5
Judaism 0.1 0.1 0
Māori religions, beliefs, and philosophies 1.4 1.1 1
Spiritualism and New Age religions 0.2 0.2 0.2
Other religions, beliefs, and philosophies 0.5 0.5 0.7
Object to answering 5.1 4.1 6.3


Churches can be key settings to engage Pacific groups - including young people, their families and their peers. Churches are also considered to be credible sources of information for Pacific communities Church ministers, church leaders and youth leaders play key roles, in particular among young people. 

Pacific peoples are involved in different types of churches which can be categorised as follow: (1). “Pacific-only” churches (e.g. Tongan Methodist churches, Samoan EFKS churches). In these churches, the dominant language spoken is Pacific Island language.(2). Mainstream churches (e.g. Life Church, modern charismatic and Pentecostal churches). Here, the dominant language spoken is English. There are important differences here. Government interventions into churches have focussed on churches in the number (1) category, and to a lesser extent the (2) category.

Spiritual factors and weekly church attendance have been identified as protecting Pacific students from binge drinking.

The level of binge drinking appears to decrease as students have stronger links to religion or spirituality, with those who attend church weekly being more likely to be non-binge drinkers.

In another study of Pacific young people aged 15-25 years, the following factors were found to protect young people from drinking:

  • their commitment to the teaching of abstinence from church or religious faith;
  • their awareness of the belief that their actions as children of Pacific parents affects the reputation and standing of their Pacific family and community (e.g. church).

This study identified churches as one of the key institutions that are influential to Pacific young people, even if Pacific young people are only transporting family members to and from churches.

The other two institutions are family and peers. In the words of one of the young people in the focus-group discussions “Island parents, they’re high on church. They’ll get really disappointed if you don’t go to church every Sunday”.

The researchers also stated that young people may learn the negative risks of alcohol consumption through the church. They further stated that Pacific young people ‘negotiated’ through these institutions for their decisions on whether to drink alcohol, drink excessively or not at all.

Pacific parents also regard churches to be an important setting for adolescents. In a study of around 950 NZ parents with children aged between 12-17 years (including 119 Pacific parents), more than one-fifth of the Pacific parents considered churches to play a key role in helping adolescents to deal with alcohol-related decisions, compared with 4% of parents among the general population.

Churches can be both a socially- and culturally-appropriate setting for health promotion interventions. Churches are significant places for Pacific communities and have regular access to young people, their families and their peers.

Most health promotion interventions in churches in New Zealand have focused on lifestyle changes such as obesity prevention and weight loss [see here, here and here]. These interventions have been shown to work in Pacific communities.

It is important to tailor any health promotion programme so that it is culturally appropriate. More will be discussed in Get Prepared. As such, it is crucial to engage and gain support from church ministers and leaders in order to make your programmes more visible and appropriate to the church community. Collaboration between churches, church ministers and leaders and the health sectors are important.