A nationwide police crackdown on barbers and hairdressers offering complimentary drinks started in Dunedin.

A number of barbershops had been visited by police and warned it was illegal to give their customers alcohol because they did not hold a liquor licence.

Dunedin alcohol harm prevention officer Sergeant Ian Paulin told the Otago Daily Times today he first became aware of the practice in the middle of last month when he found out Barkers Groom Room in George St was offering drinks to customers.

Other Dunedin businesses had also been offering drinks to customers, including a nail salon which offered a glass of wine to customers as part of a Christmas special last year, Sgt Paulin said.

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Rather than prosecuting the businesses, Sergeant Paulin told their operators about their legal obligations.

He also informed police around the country and since then multiple businesses, including Wellington and Auckland, had been contacted by police and told to stop the practice.

He pointed out that while the drink was offered as complimentary, it was only provided when customers paid for other services, which effectively meant businesses were selling alcohol without a licence.

The argument from one Auckland hair salon owner that offering one drink to customers was harmless did not hold water.

"It's clearly illegal and that's the bottom line. It doesn't say anywhere in the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act that harm has to be caused by infringing [Act]."

If businesses ignored calls from police to stop offering alcohol to customers they faced punishments of up to three months in prison and a $40,000 fine.

Sgt Paulin was unsure how long the practice had been going on for.

"We may be scratching the surface of something that has been going on in hair salons for a long time, or it could be something new."

National prevention manager Inspector Paula Holt said police were aware some service outlets, including hairdressers and barbers, had been advertising complimentary alcoholic drinks.

As a result police had contacted a number of businesses to let them know the practice was illegal, Inspector Holt said.

"It is an offence to promote or advertise alcohol that is free of charge."

Police did not intend to pursue the matter any further than providing guidance to business owners at this stage, she said.