Editorial: Liquor laws need tweak, not big change

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Every so often Parliament feels a need to "fix" the liquor problem with adjustments to the legal age of purchase or licensing hours or permitted outlets, or all of them. The repair never works. Before long, it is apparent that the social evils associated with alcohol are as rampant as ever and pressure mounts for another legislative remedy.

The pattern has been the same whether the repair was in the direction of prohibition, as it was for most of the first half of the 20th century, or, permissiveness. Since at least the 1960s, when a 6pm pub curfew was lifted and wine permitted in restaurants, the guiding principle has been that easier access to alcohol would produce a more civilised drinking culture.

There is not much doubt that it has done so, but there is also a persistent view that the last steps in liberalisation, taken by Parliament in 1989 and 1999, were at least one step too far. Supermarkets were permitted to sell wine and beer, bar licensing hours could run around the clock, liquor stores could open in every shopping centre and, most contentiously, the legal purchasing age was lowered to 20, then 18.

The turn of the century has brought a turn of the tide. Public health advocates, echoing the temperance movement of 100 years ago, have slowly convinced MPs that easier access to alcohol is largely to blame for teenage binge drinking, domestic violence and other social evils.

That view looks to be reflected in a review of liquor laws now being conducted by the Law Commission.

Its chairman, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Prime Minister when the 1989 legislation was passed, recently gave the Herald an indication of the commission's thinking. It is likely to recommend raising the excise tax on alcohol to close the gap between the $795 million the state annually reaps from liquor excise and the estimated $5.3 billion cost of repairing all the damage drink does.

He also saw a strong case for restoring the minimum purchasing age to 20 and for reintroducing restrictions on hours. "I do not understand why bars need to be open until 6am on a Sunday morning," he said. He favoured reducing the blood-alcohol limit on drivers from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml, and seemed open to restrictions on advertising alcohol, particularly at points of sale.

Hopefully, the commission will need to be persuaded that any of these measures will have a direct practical effect on the social problems that alcohol precipitates. It sounds sensitive to the risk of penalising the many innocents for the sins of a few. An increase in the excise appealed to Sir Geoffrey because "those who drink the most would pay the most tax". But it might not discourage binge-drinking. Teenage social spending seems impervious to prices.

Nor might advertising restrictions, a curfew on nightclubs or restoring the legal age to 20 do very much except restrict the rights of many, especially 18- and 19-year-olds who want to be treated like adults. To shut them out of bars and clubs does not seem a recipe for less binge drinking. They mostly do that elsewhere.

Restrictions in the past were no more effective than liberalisation has been in improving our drinking culture. The Law Commission is at least likely to keep our culture in perspective. It has already discovered we do not drink as much alcohol per head as Australians, Britons, the Irish or the French, though more than Americans and Canadians. Overall our consumption has not risen noticeably, and though wine and spirits have a greater share of it, beer remains our staple.

There is a limit to the law's power to change social behaviour. May this review eschew symbolic restrictions and offer something practical.

- NZ Herald

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