Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Alcohol bill diluted to an insipid brew

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Health concerns over 'alcopops' aimed at teems stymied by free-trade agreements with Australia. Photo / Supplied
Health concerns over 'alcopops' aimed at teems stymied by free-trade agreements with Australia. Photo / Supplied

If I were in the alcohol industry I'd count the updated Alcohol Reform Bill as a win.

The dairy, grocery and small business owners are understandably upset. Their ability to sell liquor is what keeps them afloat, they say, and even if everyone else is drowning, well, that's a matter of personal responsibility. But the Hospitality Association seems little affected. And it is right about the "reforms" not reducing binge drinking.

As Alcohol Action's Professor Doug Sellman argues, the updated bill continues to "dither and tinker" with liquor laws.

We'll get a split drinking/purchase age of 18/20, but the changes that would have made the most difference aren't there. Low prices and easy accessibility, advertising and sponsorship, and the drink-driving blood alcohol level are unchanged.

There is little to challenge what the Law Commission called "the unbridled commercialisation of alcohol".

The commission didn't want its recommendations cherry-picked, so the Government has simply diluted them into an insipid, ineffectual brew to make us feel like something is being done.

National MP Chester Borrows, who chaired the justice select committee, says the best part of the new Alcohol Reform Bill is that it gives local communities more power to "dictate how alcohol will be supplied in their communities".

I agree. For too long, communities that have suffered the effects of cheap booze, too easily available, have been powerless to stop the proliferation of liquor outlets in their neighbourhoods.

But Sellman says while the new bill will give communities more say, achieving real change in the number of liquor outlets and their operating hours will require "thousands of citizens up and down the country putting in an enormous voluntary hard grind in hearings after hearings for many years against a well-heeled alcohol industry and its high-flying lawyers".

The irony is that just as communities are being given a semblance of control, it seems we may already have given away too much say on how alcohol is sold.

Take the bill's proposed restrictions on "ready to drink" spirit drinks (RTDs).

Right now "alcopops" marketed at teen drinkers can have an alcohol content as high as 20 per cent and be sold in containers up to 3 litres. The bill seeks to restrict that to 5 per cent alcohol and a maximum of 1.5 standard drinks per container.

Sellman is dismissive. "The challenge for the alcohol industry is exactly the same as for the tobacco industry: how to make their (addictive and carcinogenic) product attractive, particularly to new users, when in its raw form the product is foul and very unpleasant to consume.

"The answer has been sugar. Not only are large quantities of sugar added to spirits to make high alcohol beverages as palatable as cordial, but there has been the development of 'grooming drinks' with just a small touch of alcohol included to hook new, young users on to the first step.

"Vodka Mudshake is a good example of these - essentially chocolate milk with half a standard drink of alcohol added - perfect for 13-year-olds."

Sellman says if the Government had been serious about the dangers of RTDs, it would be regulating the added sugar as well as the alcohol content.

But as weak as the proposed alcopops restrictions may be, an alcohol industry spokesman says it will come to nought, as free trade agreements with Australia allow goods legally produced in or imported into Australia to be sold here.

The use of free trade agreements by multinational corporations to override the domestic policies of sovereign states isn't new.

After the Canadian government passed a law in 1997 effectively banning the petrol additive MMT, a suspected neurotoxin, the Ethyl Corporation, which made MMT, sued, invoking the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Canadian government backed down, paid the company C$19.5 million for lost profits, and declared MMT safe.

More recently, tobacco giant Philip Morris sued the Government of Uruguay for loss of profit because of its restrictions on cigarette packaging, and formally threatened Australia with an arbitration claim in response to similar packaging rules.

Philip Morris has also lobbied the US to include strong investment protections for tobacco trademarks in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

But some commentators say its aggressive use of investment law to challenge tobacco regulations may have backfired.

In April, the Gillard Government announced it would no longer give foreign investors the power to sue it directly under its free trade agreements, citing attempts to "limit [Australia's] capacity to put health warnings or plain packaging requirements on tobacco products ..."

Will we guard our sovereignty as zealously?

When the big-pharma lobby in the US and here declared Pharmac "an egregious example" of what it considers unfair practices, Trade Minister Tim Groser said he wasn't about to negotiate on Pharmac's "fundamentals".

That's not entirely reassuring given the Green Party leader Russel Norman's assertion that the free trade agreement between Australia and the US had "crippled" Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme, despite leaving its "fundamentals" intact.

"These trade deals are about re-tying the hands of a democratically elected government and stopping them regulating."

That may be a little too cynical, but one thing seems clear: they're not free.

- NZ Herald

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