John Weekes is an NZME News Service reporter based in Wellington.

Booze bill makes barons back down

Heavy drinking and obscene behaviour in Queen St prompted Mayor Len Brown to call for action. Photo / Bradley Ambrose
Heavy drinking and obscene behaviour in Queen St prompted Mayor Len Brown to call for action. Photo / Bradley Ambrose

The liquor industry is proposing to voluntarily reduce alcohol levels in popular pre-mixed drinks in an attempt to head off strict new laws in the Alcohol Reform Bill now before Parliament.

The bill, if passed, would significantly change the way New Zealanders buy and consume booze and the industry's pre-emptive move on ready-to-drink "alcopops", or RTDs, is seen as an attempt to show the Government the industry can self-regulate to meet public concern.

Senior Wellington lobbyist Mark Unsworth told the Herald on Sunday the voluntary move was a proposal. "There's nothing formal - nothing's been to the minister".

Unsworth said Sydney-based Bob Rayner from drinks giant Diageo was leading a team hammering out the proposal following a series of high-level talks between alcohol-industry lobbyists and legislators.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Judith Collins said a vote on the next stage of the bill would most likely happen the week after next. The issue was "dynamic" and details could change as the alcohol debate continued.

"The house business committee is working with all political parties. It's going to take a long time," she said.

The Herald on Sunday has been told industry threatened to run rings around any Government attempt to strictly regulate RTD alcohol level and prices.

RTDs can have higher alcohol content than most beers, which are typically 4 to 5 per cent. Independent Liquor's Woodstock bourbon and cola sells at up to 8 per cent, while its Cody's bourbon and cola retails at up to 10 per cent. Lion Nathan's Billy Maverick bourbon and cola is up to 9.9 per cent. Independent's flavoured Vodka Cruisers are 8 per cent alcohol.

Nearly 500,000 RTDs are sold in New Zealand every day. Independent Liquor has the largest share of the alcopop market. The company wouldn't comment, referring enquiries to the Distilled Spirits Association, which also refused to talk.

However, a spokesman for DB Breweries said it didn't trust some of its competitors to stick to a voluntary maximum alcohol level in RTDs. DB had its own voluntary limits anyway, a spokesman said. "We don't produce RTDs that are more than two standard drinks."

A code proposed some time ago by the spirits and RTD industry would have capped alcopop levels at 6.5 per cent.

The voluntary reduction would be a major backdown from the powerful liquor industry, though it might help allay public concern about our binge-drinking culture.

In Auckland, publicity about obscene, drunken behaviour in Queen St prompted Mayor Len Brown to weigh in, writing to Collins to demand a quick fix to the city's problems.

Greens' spokesman Kevin Hague said the proposed voluntary reduction wouldn't surprise him. "The experience of those industries producing consumer goods that might cause harm is that if they take some voluntary measure, that will persuade governments not to intervene."

Professor Doug Sellman, a critic of both current alcohol policy and the big booze companies, said the voluntary move could help the industry get some desperately needed respectability. "They'll do anything to look good. They will never admit that they are a part of the problem."

Alcohol levels surprise

On the streets of our biggest city, it's anybody's guess how strong ready-to-drinks are. Some vendors are confused, too.

At Sai Superette & Liquor in the CBD, Jay Patel can't sell single servings of RTDs any more. But he can sell pairs of alcopop cans he's taped together.

Auckland Council said it asked licencees to limit the sale of single-serve drinks because the Liquor Licensing Authority was concerned about single sales in liquor ban areas. The most prominent area is the inner city.

Patel said CBD liquor sellers were often scapegoats for anti-alcopop panic. He was fed up with haphazard regulations, noting suburban outlets were still selling single alcopops.

Robyn Parker was one Aucklander stunned to learn how strong the Cody's Bourbon and Cola pre-mixes were. Although it was twice as strong (10 per cent alcohol) as she guessed, Parker, 19, didn't think banning single RTD sales or reducing alcohol content would have impact on big boozers. "They'd just drink more to get drunk."

Her friend, fellow student Nicola Caisley, also had no idea. "We've only just been allowed to drink but I'd say over the last few years my friends have started drinking less." Caisley and Parker fit the dream demographic for RTD purveyors.

So does Jo Morgan, 26. She wasn't aware of alcopops or RTDs with more than 6 per cent alcohol. "They're just like sweets. You'll just knock them back and not know what you're drinking."

Social researcher Dr Allan Wyllie welcomed a move to cap alcohol levels in alcopops. He said cheap, stronger RTDs could be a recipe for disaster. "It's an invitation for excess."

- Herald on Sunday

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