There are calls for a complete overhaul of alcohol licensing laws to prevent people from being able to buy alcohol as late as 4am at Auckland's inner-city bars and nightclubs.
Police, Auckland mayor Phil Goff and Alcohol Healthwatch all believe 4am for on-licences is far too late in the morning. It's 11pm for off-licence premises such as liquor stores and supermarkets.
Their comments come as the Herald yesterday revealed violence in the CBD has risen sharply since last year's Covid lockdown, with more than 1000 assaults in the first five months of this year – an increase of 63 per cent compared with the same period in 2019.
A lot of that is alcohol-fuelled, with the Auckland Central area police commander, Inspector Gary Davey, saying there is a real change in the tone of the city from about 1am or 2am.
After that "the levels of intoxication lead to the point where it becomes not as safe".
Alcohol Healthwatch executive director Dr Nicki Jackson said it's time to address that by changing the liquor licensing hours so bars and clubs stop selling alcohol at 2am.
"There's such strong evidence for bringing those on-licence hours forward, 4am is just too late. People are more intoxicated, they are more tired – it's a recipe for disaster.
"When New Zealand ended those 24-hour liquor licences in 2012 we saw a reduction in the number of assaults, particularly for young adults, so if we were to go earlier than 4am we would see reductions."
Jackson said a lot of people going into town have already preloaded but the availability of cheap alcohol from a high concentration of liquor stores in the CBD makes it easy for them to keep drinking.
"There is no real control over how much people are drinking (unlike at on-licence premises). Off-licence alcohol is something we need to tackle in this country, urgently."
That's why she believes off-licences need to close two hours earlier, at 9pm.
"The other issue is sideloading from off-licences, people who are in the [bars], going out and buying off-licence alcohol and drinking it in the side roads in cars".
If Auckland mayor Phil Goff had his way, bars and nightclubs in the CBD would close as early as 1am and liquor stores and supermarkets would stop selling booze at 9pm.
He knows not everyone shares his views but he believes it's part of the solution to the growing level of disorder and violence that occurs every Friday and Saturday night in the city.
"The police often tell me nothing good happens in the city after 2am. I think when you look at the public assaults and the problems that occur there it is often late at night.
"I have got a more conservative view than most people in the public would probably support me on... I'd probably bring it forward to 1 or 2[am] but I know I'm in the minority on that."
The liquor and hospitality industry oppose earlier closing, saying while there is some harm, most people are responsible drinkers and changing hours won't stop those who do cause trouble.
"The suggestion that problem drinking or anti-social or violent behaviour will be fixed by reducing on- or off-premise licences is misguided and not supported by fact – nor common sense," said NZ Beverages Council executive director Bridget MacDonald.
"Yet over the years, hours of operation is raised again and again by local councils and others driven to find a magic bullet to fix what they see as an issue based on trading hours."
Legislation introduced in 2012 created 11pm closing times for off-licences and 4am for on-licences. It also gave councils the power to create their own local alcohol policies (LAPs) if they wanted more restrictive hours.
But Auckland's LAP, which would pull back off-licences to 9pm, is still tied up in a legal stoush eight years after the first draft was released for consultation.
The current appeal is between the council and supermarkets Foodstuff and Woolworths - which oppose off-licence hours coming forward. Close to $1 million has been spent on the court battles so far.
As a result Jackson believes the time has come for urgent change.
"If Auckland can't get a local alcohol policy in place with all the resources it has, does this mean we should abandon this process because it is just too lengthy and too costly and maybe the better answer is to get those trading hours we have in legislation cut down?"
Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said he was aware of the concerns regarding the implementation of LAPs and the default trading hours. It was something that might form part of a possible review into the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act.
"I want to ensure alcohol regulation in New Zealand is fit for purpose and operates effectively. Any review of the act will need to fit within the ministry's work programme and would likely happen later this parliamentary term," he said.
Foodstuffs' head of corporate affairs, Antoinette Laird, said the company's willing to sit down with the council to see if there is any middle ground but also needs to balance the interests of customers who need flexibility in shopping times.
Woolworths would not comment.
The Hospitality Association offered similar comments to the NZ Beverages Council, adding that the night-time economy is "hugely important to Auckland, bringing close to $1 billion a year".
Chief executive Julie White said it's imperative Auckland remains open if it wants to remain the world's "most liveable city".
The National Party's justice spokesman, Simon Bridges, said while it was a bit too simplistic to just blame "demon booze" there was a discussion to be had about closing hours for both on- and off-licences.
"Alcohol is both a social evil and good but I acknowledge in the city we are pre-loading at 10.55pm and hitting it hard until 4am is not going to help an already fraught social scene," Bridges said.
"When I look at those hours that are there, 4am is very late and I tend to accept no good happens after a certain point in the night."
In terms of changing the legislation, Bridges said there were other options to consider, such as keeping bars open but ending the sale of alcohol earlier in the night.
While there was a case for some simplification of the LAP rules he didn't believe a blanket policy for everyone was the answer.
"In principle the LAP position where places can set bounds for themselves is a good idea. Queenstown is different from Morrinsville but let's acknowledge it's a clunky process and it's hard to get consensus around a council table and then it can become bogged down in legal [issues]."
Green MP Chloe Swarbrick has a bill in the members' ballot that would stop groups from appealing the LAPs. While people can still ask for a judicial review that would be more about process rather than appealing simply because they don't agree.
"The current law ... blocks communities from putting in place the alcohol laws they want, by specifically enabling hugely expensive litigation from big alcohol companies and supermarket corporates," she said.
Swarbrick isn't in favour of reducing hours, saying there are other issues that need to be addressed, such as why people are drinking in the first place.
What's behind the rise in violent crime
On the beat in Auckland City
I was punched in the face by a drunk stranger
Saturday: The booze problem
Sunday: The impact on business
Monday: The cost to the health system
Tuesday: The scourge of robbery
Wednesday: The solutions