Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Raise alcohol buying age: poll

Raised prices across the board may ensure that the drinks favoured by binge drinkers become less accessible. Photo / Thinkstock
Raised prices across the board may ensure that the drinks favoured by binge drinkers become less accessible. Photo / Thinkstock

Raising the age at which people are allowed to buy alcohol has been given overwhelming support in a Herald DigiPoll survey.

More than half of those polled supported a purchasing age of 20 for all types of licensed premises and a further 25 per cent supported raising the age for liquor stores and supermarkets but keeping it at 18 for bars and restaurants.

Although the survey showed that support for a higher purchase age had fallen slightly since last year, the higher age remained by far the preferred choice with a total of nearly 80 per cent.

The survey was conducted with alcohol reform legislation that aims to tackle New Zealand's binge-drinking culture, expected to come before Parliament later this month for its final stages.

Auckland Council has also announced plans to address alcohol-related problems in the city, a move partly prompted by increasingly anti-social drinking in downtown Auckland.

One of the most intensely debated parts of the Alcohol Reform Bill was the purchase age for buying liquor. MPs will make a conscience vote on whether to keep it at 18, raise it to 20, or raise it to 20 for off-licensed retailers.

Asked which purchase age they preferred in Parliament's review of liquor laws, 54.4 per cent of respondents said 20 years old, and 25 per cent said 20 for off-licensed stores.

Just 19.4 per cent wanted the age kept at 18 for both on-licences (bars and restaurants) and off-licences (supermarkets and bottle stores).

Justice Minister Judith Collins, who is in charge of the reforms, said she personally preferred a split age, which would allow 18-year-olds to drink in pubs and restaurants.

"I think that is the most likely to be respected. And I also think it's ridiculous if we have police officers aged 18 who go into bars enforcing the laws and they can't actually have a drink themselves in a bar."

The split age was based on a recommendation from a comprehensive Law Commission report which said the change to a purchase age of 18 in 1999 had led to more people drinking at a younger age, and greater numbers of under-20s in alcohol-related hospitalisations and road crashes.

A Herald survey of MPs in May found that keeping the age at 18 had the most support. However, a large number of MPs were still undecided or were considering the split age.

The DigiPoll survey also found a majority of New Zealanders opposed the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol.

Mrs Collins revealed last month she had asked the Justice Ministry to research international examples of minimum pricing, which is a relatively untested initiative.

Asked by pollsters whether they supported the move, which could double the price of some drinks but reduce heavy drinking, 56.5 per cent of people opposed it and 40.6 per cent supported it.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said it was "a pretty good result" because it showed there was a large proportion of consumers willing to pay more for alcohol if it reduced harm. Alcohol watchdogs supported a minimum price but said it would have to be accompanied by excise tax increases to be effective.

The Law Commission said that combining the two measures raised prices across the board and ensured that the drinks most favoured by binge drinkers became less accessible. Problem drinkers were acutely affected by the smallest of price increases.

Under minimum pricing, a bottle of wine was likely to remain at a similar price or increase slightly, but a three-litre cask of wine would double in price.

National's coalition partners the Maori Party have submitted a supplementary order paper which called for a minimum price to be part of the Alcohol Reform Bill.

National Addiction Centre head Doug Sellman said the legislation in its current form was a gutless, "non-reform" bill because it did not address alcohol marketing, pricing and sponsorship.

Professor Sellman said the addition of an evidence-based initiative such as a price rise would make it more robust.

The poll of 750 eligible voters was conducted between June 18 and June 25 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 per cent. Party vote results are of decided voters only - undecided voters were 8.4 per cent.

- NZ Herald

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