Roger Hall: Tax best weapon in booze fight

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Roger Hall has a modest proposal or two to help fix the nation's binge drinking problem.

Many young people now consider Thursday to be their big drinking night which has consequences for their productivity on Friday. Photo / Mark McKeown
Many young people now consider Thursday to be their big drinking night which has consequences for their productivity on Friday. Photo / Mark McKeown

A couple of years ago, at 2.30 in the morning, I heard a young woman screaming. Desperately. Clearly she was in serious trouble.

I rang 111. I reported the terrible screaming.

The operator told me to hang on.

A short time later she was back on the line.

"She's screaming at the police."

I thought how sad it was that such a young woman came to be in such a state.

As the mayor found when he visited Karangahape Rd in the small hours, binge drinking is rife in Auckland. As it is throughout most of the country.

Otago University's vice-chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne, recently wrote: "Over the years, changes to laws regarding purchase and access to alcohol have contributed to a 'perfect storm' for dangerous alcohol consumption."

She reports that it is now possible to purchase alcohol in more than 400 different places within walking distance of Otago University.

Factors that have contributed to the "perfect storm": the purchase age for alcohol lowered from 20 to 18 years in 1999; in the same year, supermarket sales of wine and beer were made possible on Sundays; electronic access to money via credit cards or eftpos means that most people have almost unlimited 24-hour access to alcohol. And beer has been superseded by RTDs and spirits.

The Alcohol Law Reform came and went, pleasing no one except the liquor industry.

The year is still young, yet we have numerous sad incidents involving alcohol: road accidents; attacks on police by groups of drunks; a much publicised quad bike accident, a 17-year-old accidentally kills his friend with an air gun.

And, of course, Zac Guildford. His tragedy got all the attention but all the other Zac Guildfords of either gender throughout the country got none.

As a nation do we drink too much? Of course people's definition of too much will be different. But many societies can enjoy themselves without alcohol being involved.

Many young people regard Thursday night as their big drinking night, so how efficient are they on Fridays? (Have employers ever done a study to test this?) And how many firms have the drinks trolley come round on Friday afternoons?

How big a part does alcohol play in sports clubs?

A mother wrote to the Herald earlier this year saying her young son's initiation ceremony to a sport club was having to drink half a bottle of whisky.

So if that's an initiation, how much alcohol is drunk by underage drinkers? (Maybe some sports clubs are particularly good at taking care of young members. It would be good to know.) Should we change our attitudes to alcohol?

There has been a huge reduction in smoking, thanks to a continual campaign over many years (and, of course, massive tax increases).

So people's behaviours can be changed. Let's aim for a one-generation turnaround: 20 years.

Is this being too much of a "nanny state"? Maybe. But who do those who speak scathingly of a nanny state turn to when they are ill, injured, or out of work? Here are a couple of suggestions for a campaign. Ask people to work out how much they spend on alcohol each week, whether it is at home or at a pub or nightclub. Could this money be better spent? Could it be used towards buying a house; towards tertiary education or reducing a student loan? Towards travel? If you want to lose weight, you don't need to join Jenny Craig, or a gym. Just drink less alcohol.

Recent failed attempts from the Government to find fresh sources of tax (car parks, smartphones) show it is still desperate for revenue.

So why not the obvious: increase the tax on alcohol.

If the increased amount was tagged to combat child poverty - one of the Government's aims - then this would surely make a slight increase in the cost of a drink more palatable to the public.

It's hard to give accurate figures, but one estimate is that a 20 per cent increase in the tax on alcohol means only a 4 per cent increase in the cost to the consumer, and brings in $150 million in tax revenue.

Reducing the number of cats would certainly reduce the number of birds killed; increasing the tax on alcohol will reduce (however slightly) the number of accidents, domestic violence, and child abuse. And mean fewer Zac Guildfords.

Roger Hall has been a playwright for almost 40 years. His latest work You Can Always Hand Them Back is currently running at Wellington's Circa Theatre.

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