John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: If you must spoil fun, hurry up

A return to heavy legislation around alcohol could well mean bringing back the bad old days of binge-drinking. Photo / APN
A return to heavy legislation around alcohol could well mean bringing back the bad old days of binge-drinking. Photo / APN

When are we going to see some action on these long campaigns to curb someone's fun? I'm in no particular hurry to deny teenagers a drink, put smokes in plain packs, crack down on pokies or make hamburgers less tasty. But if we must, why is it taking so long?

We have been discussing the drinking age since Labour was in power. The Law Commission started reporting in 2009, the Alcohol Reform Bill had its first reading in Parliament in November 2010. It has been through a select committee, at last report it was returning to Parliament for its final stages "later this month". That was June.

Pokies have been in the gun since June last year when the Government decided on the SkyCity convention centre deal. Smoking, of course, never goes away and obesity is becoming a cause of similar proportions.

National is plainly in no hurry to bring any of these subjects to a vote, even a free vote which can make them more fun. But the longer they put it off, the worse it becomes.When the alcohol bill returns, the Maori Party will put up an amendment to ban advertising and sponsorship, set a minimum price and permit no more off-licences.

It's remarkable how the climate has changed since the millennium. The last 20 years of the 20th century brought a wondrous liberation to social life and the economy.

The drinking age was lowered to 18, bars could open all night and sales from supermarkets were permitted.

Lotto arrived and casino licences were issued. American fast-food chains proliferated. The law at last was treating the population as adults, not children in need of restrictions and protection from temptations.

It had taken long enough. The age was lowered to 20 in 1989 but not to 18 until 1999. Supermarkets got the right to sell wine in the 1989 legislation but not beer until 1999.

Purse-lipped campaigners for public health had opposed each step and never gave us a chance to grow up. They noticed teenagers were binge-drinking but many other things were happening too. Wine was displacing beer, for one thing, and more expensive beers were displacing the draught we used to drink from jugs and half-gallon jars.

We'll probably never go back, but you never know. If all advertising and promotion is banned and beer companies cannot build profits on quality, they will go back to selling quantity. That consequence is even more likely if minimum prices are imposed and they can make more profit from the bulk brew they can make at lowest cost.

I shouldn't dwell on alcohol; other people's pleasures are just as important.

Back in the days when racing was the only form of gambling allowed in New Zealand, my grandmother discovered pokie machines on visits to family in Sydney. Her attraction to these things quickly became a subject of amusement to her and the family.

We hadn't heard of problem gambling then but she would never have become one. She had a will.

I don't know anyone addicted to pokie machines, which isn't surprising. There were, at last count (in 2006 by the Ministry of Health), an estimated 13,100 problem gamblers in New Zealand, 0.4 per cent of the adult population. For their sake Key is urged to spurn SkyCity's offer of a $350 million convention centre. He must wonder sometimes what sort of job he has taken on. Is he running a country or a creche?

It's interesting that lotto never attracted the same concern from the Problem Gambling Society. It says lotto lacks the instant rewards that encourage compulsive gambling but I can't help wondering whether the true difference is that lotto is a state operation run by a government-appointed commission.

A great deal of the rhetoric against casinos, as against alcohol, tobacco and fast food, seethes with resentment that providers of fun can make profits. Tobacco, of course, deserves to be discouraged but there comes a point when righteous zealotry is self-defeating.

Much as I resent sharing air with smokers, and am grateful that I seldom have to do so now, it was sickening to see shop displays disappearing into metal cabinets the other day. Will that stop anyone trying a cigarette?

The next step, if the Government follows Australia's lead, is to allow cigarettes to be sold only in identical packets - probably a dirty brown, featuring pictorial health warnings even more gruesome that those they already carry. The manufacturer's brand would be permitted only in small type somewhere.

When this rule came into force across the Tasman, a French manufacturer put a line on sale in Europe featuring a kangaroo on the packet and the legend: "Popular in Australia." So much for fun.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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