Editorial: Liquor reform needs courage

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

All but the most ardent prohibitionist would agree that, in moderation, alcohol can be beneficial. Some scientific studies strongly suggest that judicious use can actually confer health benefits. And, for better or worse, it is popular both as a relaxant and social lubricant.

That's why discussion of restricting access to alcohol raises howls of outrage. Dissenters complain that social policy should not be dictated by the need to control an irresponsible few.

Some restrictions on alcohol supply are proposed in the Government's Alcohol Reform Bill, currently before a committee, which has been hearing public submissions this week. But it is idle to suggest that people who are not problem drinkers will be penalised because of the actions of those who are.

Alcohol reform needs to balance freedom with social cost and it needs to be reckoned against the background of a society where liberalisation has moved far too far, far too fast.

None of the measures foreshadowed imposes anything like undue hardship on a moderate or even an enthusiastic social drinker, except a teenage one. The closure of bars at 4am; a ban on advertising of heavy discounts; an increase in the off-licence purchase age to 20; a greater say for communities who oppose new outlets: these are not draconian restrictions on the rights of social drinkers.

Indeed the Government has taken an unduly cautious approach, ruling out an excise tax increase, despite good evidence that price hikes cut consumption - though it is still considering the question of whether to set minimum pricing - and harsher restrictions on advertising and sponsorship.

It is to be hoped that the committee will take on board the submissions it has received, including an impassioned plea from former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright who urged "legislative measures that will limit severely the ready availability of very cheap alcohol, and normalisation of its marketing to families".

Dame Silvia is not alone in lamenting the sale of liquor in supermarkets. Auckland publican Kevin Hix told the committee that supermarkets' purchasing muscle drove prices down to the extent that producers were being damaged. The chains then use liquor as a lure: so-called "loss leaders" sell at or below cost to entice shoppers.

The result is that liquor prices here are ludicrously cheap and the social cost of this easy availability is everywhere apparent in levels of alcohol-fuelled crime, mayhem and dysfunction. That is a problem that affects all of us now and in the future - and it is the responsibility of all of us to address it.

To the extent that we have allowed our children to grow up in a country saturated by alcohol - or at least stood by while a combination of commercial rapacity and political inaction allowed it to happen - we have failed them.

It is not enough to complain that this is someone else's problem. It will not wash to say that "nanny state" is trying to stop our fun. Moderate, mature, responsible use of alcohol is not going to get harder. But we need to send a signal to lawmakers that they should approach the task of liquor reform with courage and vigour. Future generations will thank us for it.

- Herald on Sunday

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