Opinion: Heed Maori Party on booze, Mr Key

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The Maori Party's proposals are exactly the type of reforms that will change this country's damaging drinking culture. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Maori Party's proposals are exactly the type of reforms that will change this country's damaging drinking culture. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Government's Alcohol Reform Bill is soon to be debated for the final time in Parliament.

Barring a miracle, history will record this bill as one of the great failures of John Key's National Government. As it stands, the bill ignores the most thorough review and sustained public debate about alcohol in our history.

Clear direction on what to do about the heavy drinking culture was outlined by the Law Commission based on the best international evidence and careful examination of the situation in New Zealand, but the Government has chosen to ignore it. Instead, Mr Key's Cabinet has embarked on a subterfuge of spin designed to make people think the bill is full of reforms, when it is not.

What has become clear to most people is that to change the heavy drinking culture the Government needs to lead similar measures that have worked for tobacco, not to eliminate drinking and alcohol sales, but to reduce heavy drinking as far as legislation can help achieve this.

Law Commission head Sir Geoffrey Palmer accurately identified "unbridled commercialisation of alcohol" as the fundamental problem.

However, Mr Key has opted to put the alcohol industry, especially global alcohol corporations, in front of the safety, health and wellbeing of ordinary New Zealanders. This is a betrayal of the thousands of victims of alcohol.

The large alcohol companies make a majority of their profits in this country from dangerous heavy drinking, and the National Government's weak reforms have been deliberately formulated to look good while not disturbing those profits.

Judith Collins, the new Justice Minister now responsible for the bill, talks about the need for a "balanced approach" and refers to the bill as "sensible and pragmatic". Lack of effectiveness and any real change is what her balanced, sensible approach really means.

Barring a miracle now, all the familiar alcohol statistics will continue - more than 700,000 heavy drinkers and a yearly muster of 70,000 or more alcohol-related physical and sexual assaults, up to 3000 children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, more than 500 serious and fatal injury traffic crashes, and a third of all police apprehensions involving alcohol.

Virtually every policy that would make a substantial difference to this crisis is missing. Specifically, there is no attempt to deal with the relentless brainwashing marketing of alcohol - to eliminate the glamour that drives the overuse of this highly intoxicating and carcinogenic drug.

There is also no minimum price per standard drink to put an end to alcohol which is so cheap intoxication can be bought with pocket money; and no increased excise tax to reduce heavy drinking, a strategy used against smoking.

Instead of restrictions on trading hours the National Government's proposed hours mean alcohol can still be sold from 7am to 4am.

But wait for the sting in the tail. Under the bill, those who want more civilised trading hours and reasonable numbers of liquor outlets for their communities will be given the opportunity of battling it out (for free in their own spare time) against alcohol industry lawyers (being paid hundreds of dollars an hour) at various hearings.

The final debate in Parliament was looking like a predictable set of self-congratulatory Government speeches.

We were waiting for the deceptive claim that the Government has incorporated 130 of the Law Commission's 153 recommendations into the bill and several others for good measure, while raining silence on the missing ones that would make some real difference.

We were also anticipating the Government's rhetoric about how individuals need to become more responsible, how legislation can only go so far in changing the heavy drinking culture and speeches peppered by "empowering communities", "not punishing the majority" (when we're all being punished by alcohol harm already), "good first step" straight from the PR machine. This may still occur.

But suddenly everything has changed and the glimpse of a miracle has appeared. It occurred quietly over Queen's Birthday weekend, when the Maori Party announced it intends to use a supplementary order paper to push for crucial improvements to the bill.

Four key ones are: elimination of alcohol advertising and sponsorship, introduction of minimum pricing per unit of alcohol, developing a sinking lid for off-licences and more restrictive trading hours.

These are exactly the type of reforms that will change the damaging drinking culture. Further, these measures are strongly supported by the public according to the latest Health Sponsorship Council survey on alcohol policies.

There will now be a real debate in Parliament about alcohol reform and an opportunity for a final bill that will seriously address the alcohol crisis after all.

Responsibility has been a common catchcry by MPs across the spectrum in the debate. Let's see how responsible they are now in transforming the Alcohol Reform Bill by incorporating the Maori Party proposals.

* Professor Doug Sellman, director, National Addiction Centre, University of Otago
* Professor Jennie Connor, head, department of preventive and social medicine, University of Otago
* Professor Geoffrey Robinson, chief medical officer, Capital & Coast District Health Board

- NZ Herald

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