National’s plans to combat alcohol harm, as revealed by its health spokesman Dr Shane Reti at a recent political forum, fly in the face of public health evidence.
Reti, along with current Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall and Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick, had been asked how he would combat alcohol harm – including seven cancers – at the forum hosted by public health groups including Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA).
The public health audience was acutely aware of the scale of alcohol harm in Aotearoa and was looking to Reti, Verrall and Swarbrick for promising signs of any meaningful action they would take if voted into government.
Reti stressed how seriously he takes the problem - despite National’s vote against bills from both Labour and Swarbrick that could reduce alcohol harm. He highlighted the huge problems caused by alcohol abuse that he saw on his infamous ambulance ride-alongs.
“I get it and I see it and I absolutely agree we need to be doing more.”
But any hope that Reti and National now “got it” evaporated as he followed up with the party’s solution.
“We actually think that education remains the key initiative for reducing harm from alcohol.”
Pressed for detail, Reti said he would support “various trusts that go out to the schools and teach responsible drinking and teach the harms. I think that’s really effective”.
Unfortunately, most high-quality studies have found occasional education sessions are not effective. They have no long-term impact on drinking behaviour and are costly to provide at scale, representing very poor value for the taxpayer.
The details given by Reti were eerily similar to initiatives promoted by the alcohol industry. Smashed, an alcohol education initiative designed by the world’s largest spirits producer – Diageo – is delivered by a local trust and funded by the alcohol industry. Although public health professionals have heavily critiqued its flawed design, Smashed has been welcomed into 94 high schools in Aotearoa.
Like magicians, Diageo - and alcohol industry representatives in Aotearoa - use Smashed to furnish an image of corporate responsibility with one hand, while with the other, they invest hundreds of millions into the global flow of alcohol marketing.
We would hope that any government would recognise the obvious hypocrisy of alcohol companies teaching children about the harm their products cause - and act to keep such programmes out of schools.
A far better investment would be to place comprehensive restrictions on alcohol marketing; this is one of the World Health Organisation’s top five strategies for reducing the harm caused by alcohol and is highly cost-effective.
It’s well established that alcohol marketing shapes the amount young people drink and how young they start, yet successive governments have let it expand into more channels than ever before. Today every phone is a billboard and an alcohol store, and the product can be on your doorstep in 30 minutes. Moreover, Māori and Pasifika children are exposed to alcohol marketing around their neighbourhood more than other children.
In the past decade, three separate government inquiries led by some of the nation’s top legal, sporting and health minds, have concluded we must reduce exposure to alcohol marketing to minimise the harm it causes. Yet, no meaningful changes have been made by any government to date.
The current government has deferred a review of alcohol marketing until after the election, with no clear scope of what it would include. Worryingly, ongoing work to regulate harmful online content (led by the Department of Internal Affairs) explicitly excludes digital alcohol marketing. Only the Greens and Te Pāti Māori support the broad restrictions that are needed.
Why is it taking so long to lift alcohol’s spell? At least part of the answer is misdirection. False solutions – “just teach them to drink responsibly” – shift focus from regulation to individuals. It’s a mantra repeated by alcohol industry giants, their proxies and then by politicians.
The question must be asked: who is “educating” whom? This year some light has been shone on the ways alcohol companies build cosy relationships with politicians and senior public servants, hosting functions and paying lobbyists who arrange meetings behind closed doors.
Families in Aotearoa should be free from the ways harmful industries like alcohol influence our society. We must enact comprehensive restrictions on their marketing and ban them from our schools. To get there, we need more transparency over what is discussed with their representatives and mandatory cooling-off periods between related public and private roles.
It’s time for politicians to shake off big alcohol’s spell, so we can be truly free to build a fairer and healthier environment for everyone.
Steve Randerson is co-chair of Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) rōpū apaarangi waipiro (alcohol expert panel) and a research officer at Massey University’s SHORE & Whariki Research Centre.