We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: Should the drinking age be raised?
I remember it to this day; one of the most uncomfortable meetings I have ever sat through. I was 17 and presenting to my High School PTA meeting on the unspeakable- the after-ball. They weren't the stuff of headlines in those days, but they were close. Rather than pretend they didn't exist, a group of students and I decided to make our after-ball safer by hiring security, selling tickets to prevent gate crashers, and putting on a bus to get everyone home safely at the end of the night.
I'm not sure what I was expecting at that meeting, but I certainly didn't expect the Chairman of the PTA to ask that all record of my presentation be removed from the minutes just in case it all went horribly wrong. The members nodded in agreement, all except one parent who boldly told the meeting "come on, it's not like we were much different in our day - except perhaps you, Mr Chair".
There were many lessons I learned that day, but the one I remember most is that we'll never solve an issue by pretending it doesn't exist. Nor can we blame it all on one generation.
I do think we have a problem with alcohol in New Zealand. We have a binge culture and it's hurting all of us. The Alcohol Advisory Council tells us that in 2008 roughly 23,000 people were treated for alcohol related harm. Then there are the flow-on effects, like the fact that in the youth courts, 80% of young people who appear before the judge committed their crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It's no wonder that alcohol has a social cost of around $4.9 billion a year.
But the debate these days doesn't seem to centre around whether we have a problem, but rather what we do about it. When it comes to solutions there are a couple of areas that we all come back to: accessibility; advertising; price and, perhaps what is most commonly debated; the purchasing age.
I personally don't support raising the age you can buy alcohol from 18 to 20. Like almost everyone, I do want to make sure we stop kids as young as 12 being found drunk on our streets, but why are we focusing on 18 and 19 year olds to do that? If the issue is young people buying alcohol on behalf of even younger people, then lets deal with that directly by tightening the laws around the supply of minors, and toughen up on the enforcement and penalties for underage sales . While we're at it, let's stop dairies from selling RTDs individually for the benefit of kids, in fact, let's stop dairies from selling altogether, and put an end to booze companies marketing directly to minors (anyone who doesn't think that happens hasn't seen the latest friendly chocolate flavoured mud slingers).
Parliament is about to explore all of these options when a draft bill comes back from select committee, but there is one thing the Government hasn't put in this bill - the issue of price. We are naïve if we think that this doesn't play a role in the amount we drink in New Zealand - and it should have been part of the debate.
Let's be honest - very few of us can claim the absolute moral high ground on this one, but that doesn't mean we can't sort it out. It's going to take collective responsibility rather than blaming one group though, and the use of every single avenue we have available - from changing the law right through to strengthening our response to the issue within our communities, families and schools.
For us to win on this one, it may even take the Chair of the PTA Board...
Many people are concerned that alcohol abuse is causing significant harm in New Zealand. Our job as Members of Parliament is to ensure that any law changes reduce harm, are fair and do not inadvertently increase the problem. I believe that the proposal to raise the purchase age does not pass these tests. The right approach is one of shared responsibility.
The challenge with legislative reform is to strike a balance between dealing with the considerable harm that alcohol causes, while not unfairly penalising responsible and moderate drinkers. I feel very strongly that increasing the purchase age would be discriminatory and would not be effective in combating youth binge drinking. I announced last year that I will be tabling an amendment to the Government's alcohol reform legislation seeking to keep the alcohol purchase age at 18 for both on and off licenses.
I do not believe the problem is that 18 and 19-year-olds can purchase a six pack of beer at a supermarket or enjoy a bottle of wine over dinner. We need to focus on the binge drinking culture that exists with school age youth. Under the current law it is not an offence to supply alcohol to those under the age of 18. The Government has proposed a law change so that alcohol can only be supplied to under 18 year olds with a parent's consent, and under adult supervision. This is a sensible and overdue measure, which will actually address the problem.
There have been three alcohol age votes in the last 12 years which shows that this issue is contentious. I do not believe an age of 20 will ever be accepted as fair. It is naïve to imagine that 19 year olds who may have been living away from home for two years will accept a law which makes it illegal for them to purchase a drink. It will further engender a culture where it is socially acceptable to buy alcohol on behalf of those who can't purchase alcohol for themselves. This could increase alcohol harm in New Zealand. The proposed law is flawed as it will make it legal for a 20-year-old to supply alcohol to a 19-year-old.
This will undermine the cultural shift we need. We need to make it unacceptable to supply alcohol to those under the purchase age. People will accept it is wrong to supply to under 18 year olds but they are unlikely to accept a purchase age of 20.
Taking rights away from 18 and 19-year-olds will not solve the problem when the evidence shows that binge drinking actually occurs right across the age groups.
The Alcohol Reform Bill empowers communities and zeroes in on where the harm from alcohol is occurring. Proposals include limiting the availability of alcohol, licences will be harder to get and easier to lose, buying alcohol at corner dairies will end when current licences expire, and local communities will have more say on the concentration, location, and hours of alcohol outlets in their area.
Local communities, not people in Wellington, are best placed to decide how alcohol licences should be treated in their own area, which is why the bill empowers communities to adopt local alcohol policies.
There are already a number of measures to tackle youth drinking in the bill including a potential ban for alcohol products which are particularly dangerous or appealing to minors, and making it an offence to promote alcohol in a way which has special appeal to minors. There have been hundreds of submissions on this legislation and the Select Committee process has ensured that communities have had their say.
On principle, I believe that if someone can be elected to Parliament, get married or join the army, then they should be able to buy a bottle of wine at a bottle store. My colleague, Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, was elected to the Manukau City Council at 18, and re-elected two further times indicating people valued his contribution. If the alcohol purchase age was increased to 20, we would have the ridiculous situation where someone like Jami-Lee could be elected to a Council which will set alcohol policies for that district, yet he would be unable to buy a drink himself. If you are old enough to be elected to Parliament or Council, you are old enough to purchase a bottle of wine.
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