Back in 1999, when Jenny Shipley's tired and frightened National G' />

Society has marginalised the cigarette - why not go for the throat of the booze scourge too?

I'm not in the habit of saying "I told you so", but this time I can't resist.

Back in 1999, when Jenny Shipley's tired and frightened National Government decided out of the blue to reduce the legal drinking age to 18, I predicted it would lead to immense social problems.

Whether the idea was to woo 18 and 19-year-old voters or to ensure that the fabulously wealthy booze industry fronted up with loads of cash for the upcoming election campaign I don't know.

But I do know that on the consciences of that Parliament's conscience voters is a legacy of thousands of deaths, injuries and broken lives among this nation's teenagers.

By the turn of the millennium it had become evident that more and more and younger and younger teenagers were dangerously overindulging in alcohol and the Labour Government was talking about strategies to cope.

At that time I wrote: "The problem of teenage drinking is only just starting. In years to come we will reap the whirlwind of a lower drinking age."

And so we have, to the extent that the problem now engenders a Law Commission issues paper called "Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm", produced after long and widespread consultation and at God knows what cost. But it sure is comprehensive - a credit to its authors.

So it should be. New Zealanders, as the paper points out, spend between $4 billion and $5 billion a year ($85 million a week) on alcoholic products, which is just about the same amount as the nation spends every year on cleaning up the mess it causes.

But even more important than that, we are dealing here with a substance that is a mind-altering chemical, a brain poison and a highly addictive drug.

As an internationally renowned physician told me many years ago: "If alcohol were invented today it would be available only on prescription, and then only from hospital pharmacies."

Nevertheless, he said, alcohol remained the safest, most readily available and cheapest tranquilliser known to mankind.

And therein lies the enigma of alcohol, on the one hand the cup that cheers and relaxes, the almost indispensable lubricant for social intercourse (and often sexual intercourse, too) and on the other an agent of physical, mental and spiritual destruction for those who misuse it.

Among the Law Commission paper's 150-odd recommendations are several that this column has suggested from time to time over the past 10 years, first among which is to return the legal purchasing age to 20.

That's not going to prevent 18 and 19-year-olds from getting their hands on it, but it will make it more difficult for younger teens.

Another is that the tax should be increased on alcoholic products - a net price increase of 10 per cent - but in this the paper falls well short of what is necessary.

Justice Minister Simon Power can say what he likes, but the tax on alcohol should, like the tax on tobacco, be increased automatically at regular intervals.

Since I pay $120-odd for a carton of 200 cigarettes, I don't see why a bottle of whisky, gin, brandy, rum or whatever shouldn't be at least the same price, considering its potential to do far greater damage.

The paper suggests, too, that regulatory power be provided to prohibit the sale of undesirable liquor products. That, surely, must include the reprehensible "alcopops", deliberately and inhumanly designed to appeal to children. These should be banned altogether just as 10-packs of cigarettes were when the anti-smoking brigade discovered that youngsters were buying them.

As Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer said in releasing the paper, alcohol can cost less than bottled water.

"One of the consequences of alcohol being promoted and sold at pocket-money prices is that we risk losing sight of its status as a legal drug, capable of causing serious harm to others," Sir Geoffrey said - self-evidently I might add.

Another recommendation is regulating irresponsible promotions that encourage the excessive consumption of alcohol. Once again, that does not go nearly far enough.

All alcohol advertising - press, television, radio, junk mail - should be banned, as it is for tobacco, and liquor outlets should not be allowed to advertise specials, or anything else for that matter, outside their premises.

As for supermarkets, the paper carries a suggestion that they, and grocery stores (dairies), should be prohibited from selling some or all alcohol products. The sooner the better, and the closure of a raft of suburban booze peddlers wouldn't go amiss, either.

The paper suggests a health warning on liquor labels and that, too, has been suggested here from time to time. Once again, what is sauce for the cigarette is sauce for the booze bottle (or can or carton).

The paper has been widely welcomed by everyone from politicians to physicians, but what will come of it? Will we discover that there is such a thing as a politician's conscience? Somehow, I doubt it.