It says much for the burgeoning market for ready-to-drink alcopops that the liquor industry reacted so urgently to a threat to their popularity. A Government proposal to ban off-licence stores from selling alcopops with more than 6 per cent alcohol content had industry heavyweights beating a path to Justice Minister Judith Collins' door. The fruits of their labour became obvious this week when for no good reason the Government backed down on its plan. Instead, the industry is to set its own rules for the drinks.
The Government had planned a tough line on alcopops because they are particularly harmful. Sweet-tasting, cheap and with a typical alcohol content of 8 to 10 per cent - twice that of most beers - they have become the favoured drink of many young women. More than 500,000 alcopops are sold in New Zealand every day, and they are heavily implicated in binge-drinking. The Government's original plan, incorporated in the Alcohol Reform Bill, was based on the belief that a mandatory lower alcohol level would persuade many drinkers to abandon alcopops and reduce their overall consumption of liquor.
The liquor industry reacted initially with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. A veiled threat was implicit in its claim that the Government plan was at odds with transtasman free trade agreements. When this objection failed, understandably, to gain traction, it came up with a far more nuanced, and ultimately successful, proposition. As Ms Collins noted, albeit in a different context, the industry has "shown itself to be adept at changing the way it operates to suit the circumstances".
A voluntary code reducing alcohol levels in alcopops represents a backdown for the industry, but it is a calculated one. Cleverly, it indicates a willingness to meet public concerns while, most importantly, staving off the threat of Government intervention. Its acceptability should, obviously, have hinged on whether this is an approach that will work. Already, there is reason for considerable doubt on that score.
Self-regulation works only when all participants are prepared to play ball. But a spokesman for Dominion Breweries says his company does not trust some of its competitors to stick to any voluntary maximum alcohol level. That not only undermines the industry proposition but hints broadly that some companies would also seek to find a way around any regulations that the Government might impose if the voluntary code proves an empty gesture.
There will also always be reasons for dissatisfaction with any deal hammered out behind closed doors. Inevitably, it will be alleged that the managing directors of the likes of Jim Beam and Bacardi were given advantages denied the proponents of stricter alcohol laws. That, in effect, they were handed the inside running. The final decision on alcopops is, therefore, equally questionable in terms of fairness and transparency.
It also casts an even greater focus on the difference in approach to the liquor and tobacco industries. The tobacco giants have been under unrelenting assault, including, most recently, a ban on retail displays and a plan to follow Australia's lead and introduce plain packaging. The comparison with the content and snail's pace of alcohol reform could not be starker.
The Law Commission will forever remain perplexed that several of its key recommendations after a painstaking inquiry, notably on minimum pricing and an increased excise tax, have not been included in the Alcohol Reform Bill. The Government's timidity can only have encouraged the liquor industry to think it could take the sting out of a perfectly reasonable attempt to limit the damage caused by alcopops. The message inherent in its success makes the Government's cave-in all the more deplorable.