Herald on Sunday Editorial: A semblance of liquor reform

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Politics beats public interest when it comes to tangling with the vested interests of the liquor and hospitality industries. Photo / Thinkstock
Politics beats public interest when it comes to tangling with the vested interests of the liquor and hospitality industries. Photo / Thinkstock

It will not be surprising if the Government defers until after the election the passage into law of the Alcohol Reform Bill.

The 18- and 19-year-olds who will be barred by the law from buying liquor at off-licence premises are also old enough to vote and it makes no sense to annoy them in the weeks before the country goes to the polls.

Indeed, Justice Minister Simon Power has specifically made the point that the split purchase age is not a done deal and Parliament will "be voting on a range of options for the purchase age".

Power, who is standing down at the election, probably won't be around to see the liquor "reforms" passed into law. Thus he will avoid his share of the opprobrium that the new law, whatever adjustments are made to it, will rightly attract.

The minister makes much of the fact that the Government has accepted 135 of the 153 recommendations in the Law Commission's voluminous 2010 report Alcohol In Our Lives.

But barely half were accepted in full and - to employ a topical metaphor - the proposed legislation either sidesteps or kicks for touch on the significant issues.

The strength of community feeling about the price we are paying for cheap, easily accessible alcohol may be inferred from the fact that almost 9000 people and organisations made submissions to the select committee considering the bill.

National's Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, who attracted praise even from his political opponents for his even-handed chairmanship of the committee, spoke for many of us when he recalled his experience as a police officer and reported that alcohol "was [behind] most domestic disputes we attended, most crimes of violence, car crashes [and] the dumb decisions people make on sexual encounters".

The havoc wrought on private lives and the public purse by alcohol abuse, binge drinking, alcohol-fuelled violence and drink-driving will come as news to nobody. Tellingly, Borrows remarked that the alcohol industry "say we should be more liberal and focus on personal responsibility, and they will accept none of the blame". Yet the Government's answer is to tinker, giving the appearance of doing something, yet ignoring the experts and not daring to challenge the powerful booze barons.

Overwhelming research evidence says price is the major determinant of consumption. But the Government's refusal to increase excise duty reminds us that politics beats public health when it comes to tangling with the vested interests of the liquor and hospitality industries.

In the interests of lessening the ready availability of alcohol, the law will require supermarkets to move their wine and beer sections to a back corner. It's a good enough idea as far as it goes, but problem youth drinkers are not, by and large, supermarket shoppers.

By contrast, there is a marked distaste for targeting the RTD or "alcopop" industry. The commission and health professionals have expressed grave unease about the way in which the industry grooms the next generation of drinkers. The new regime purports to address this by limiting the alcohol content (currently 20 per cent) and size (three litres) of products marketed at teen drinkers to 5 per cent and 1.5 standard drinks respectively.

But it seems entirely possible that this would be trumped by free-trade agreements with Australia, where no such restriction exists. In any case, there is no attempt to deal with the fundamental cynicism of marketing to young drinkers: the bill would allow the Minister of Justice, in consultation with the Minister of Health, to ban alcohol products which are particularly appealing to minors. A possibility in the future, rather than action now.

Alcohol law reform has been this Government's biggest social policy challenge. The Law Commission unambiguously said so and the public loudly endorsed its recommendations.

It may be a bad month to use the term, but the proposed law looks suspiciously like having dropped the ball.

- Herald on Sunday

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