Editorial: Failure of nerve on liquor law

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Photo / Janna Dixon
Photo / Janna Dixon

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia, who, as Associate Health Minister, negotiated the increases in tax on tobacco products announced on Wednesday, can take pride in an important achievement.

Maori suffer disproportionately from the ravages of smoking-related disease: one in every five New Zealanders smokes, but among Maori the rate is closer to one in three.

The word "holocaust", once expunged from Turia's vocabulary by Prime Ministerial fiat, suggests itself as appropriate here.

Turia spoke movingly of watching her mother die of smoking-related disease - "there is nothing quite so traumatic as having to sit and watch the life of your loved one, slowly drained" - and her colleague Hone Harawira said the party's push was inspired by "aroha" for his people.

The extraordinary urgency with which the legislation was introduced seemed odd when considered alongside the Government's disinclination, expressed barely a day earlier, to consider an increase in excise tax on alcohol.

The tax hike was one of several recommendations in the Law Commission's review of the country's liquor laws, released on Tuesday.

Prime Minister John Key said there was "no appetite" for such a move, by which he presumably meant the Government had no political appetite for it, because the public appetite is plainly keen: almost four out of five people making submissions on the commission's initial discussion document supported making alcohol more expensive.

Close to 90 per cent want all advertising banned and there is a strong groundswell of support for raising the age of entitlement to buy liquor - two out of three want the minimum purchase age to return to 20 years.

Those percentages don't represent public opinion at large, of course: people who are happy with the status quo or oppose change (not necessarily the same thing) and those who don't care about the subject are under-represented.

But the commission received a whisker under 3000 submissions - 10 times as many as parliament's select committees receive on all but the most contentious pieces of legislation. It would be foolish to ignore them.

Yet that appears to be the Government's intention, certainly in respect of a tax increase. Having conceded that a price hike is the way to cut demand for tobacco, Key rules out doing the same for alcohol.

His reasoning is plain, and not without merit. There is no safe smoking level, but alcohol in moderation is not injurious and it goes against the Nats' libertarian instincts to penalise safe drinking.

Doubtless the liquor industry wields considerable lobbying influence but that does not on its own explain the Government's apparent failure of nerve.

Key is anxious to not alienate mainstream New Zealanders who enjoy a tipple without becoming involved in violent street brawls or highway carnage. Yet mainstream New Zealanders are already deeply disquieted by the social cost of alcohol abuse.

They read it in their newspapers every day and the real experts - everyone from police on the frontline to doctors in emergency rooms - tell them that the incidence of teenage drinking, particularly binge drinking, and its consequential social and health costs, have hugely ballooned since the drinking age was lowered.

If, as appears likely, a distaste remains for raising the age again, there can be no argument about targeted interventions to make alcohol consumption less attractive and available to impressionable youngsters.

An excise tax increase should disproportionately raise the cost of the ready-to-drink "alcopop" concoctions that are popular at that end of the market.

Failing such an increase, a minimum price regime to stop what the commission calls "alcohol at pocket-money prices" is the least that might be hoped for.

Like any business, the liquor industry has its eye on future customers. But recruiting the young into the regular use of toxic substances should not be easy.

The time has come, too, to end the so-called conscience vote on liquor licensing. It is an anachronism redolent of Victorian days, when temperance did battle with hedonism.

Cleaning up the mess made by alcohol is an urgent matter of social policy, not a question of personal morality. Conscience voting delivers patchwork regulation because of all the horsetrading that goes on to secure numbers. It has no place in 21st-century lawmaking on such an important issue.

- Herald on Sunday

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