Editorial: Drinking law reversal is a retrograde step

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Previous experience suggests the proposed regime would be a retrograde step, destined for regret. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Previous experience suggests the proposed regime would be a retrograde step, destined for regret. Photo / Herald on Sunday

Against earlier indications and its better judgment perhaps, the Law Commission has recommended a drastic reversal of 20 years of liberal liquor regulation.

Its report yesterday, the result of a review initiated by the previous Government and hastened by the present one, is likely to mark a turning point in public policy. But it is most unlikely to mark a turning point in public behaviour.

If Parliament takes the commission's advice, the minimum purchasing age will be restored to 20 without previous exceptions. A reasonable suggestion that 18 might remain the minimum for licensed premises, with 20 for off-licence purchases, has come to nothing.

Students and other 18 and 19-year-olds will lose the right to drink in bars and clubs unless MPs take a more realistic view.

The commission has been persuaded by police and public health promoters that crime and excessive drinking can be reduced by making alcohol more expensive, restricting its hours of sale, regulating its advertising and promotion more closely and giving communities more control over permits for local liquor outlets.

Some of these proposals are sensible. The sale of sweetened spirits to young people at "pocket money prices" is an act of industry irresponsibility that demanded attention, though it is hard to believe higher tax can be as effective as research suggests.

People are willing to pay many times the standard prices of alcohol when an outlet's popularity or exclusive franchise allows it to charge a premium.

Stronger local control on the number and location of liquor outlets would be welcome, too. The commission suggests councils delegate their licensing decisions to appointed local committees that would notify residents within 200 metres of an application.

Inconsistency in licensing across a city would not matter. Communities ought to be able to decide the character and scale of their liquor supply.

That goes for inner city nightlife districts too. The commission's proposed prohibition on all-night bars is needless. While a 4am closure would be late enough for anybody most of the time, there is self-evidently a demand for all night services in the central city and they should not be prohibited without good cause and proven benefit.

Justice Minister Simon Power has indicated that a more restricted licensing code might not be enacted until late next year, safely beyond the Rugby World Cup. The timing amounts to an admission that the code will reduce our cities' attractions to young international travellers and world-class events.

The weight of submissions to the Law Commission came down heavily on alcohol advertising and promotions, especially those associating drinking with sport and youth. The submissions have changed the commission's tentative view that self-regulation by the industry's Advertising Standards Authority was sufficient.

The commission proposes a stifling of promotional messages in three stages over five years. Ultimately, little more than a brand and price could be advertised.

Thus, sponsorship, commercial rights, consumer convenience and the pleasure of many would be restricted for the sake of public health theory. The commission says statistics "give the lie to the bald assertion that the vast majority of New Zealanders drink responsibly".

Most of us, 60 per cent, get drunk occasionally. About 10 per cent of us get drunk every week. About 25 per cent drink too much every time they drink.

But these figures would have been much the same, or possibly worse, before licensing hours were liberalised.

The past 20 years might not have made us more civilised but previous experience suggests the proposed regime would be a retrograde step, destined for regret.

- NZ Herald

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