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March 11, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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The Legislation that Didn’t Dampen Spirits

late last year parliament passed the alCohol reform bill, a pieCe of legislation that was onCe intended to be a “onCe in a generation ChanCe” to address our problem with the drink. yet despite years of work, hours of researCh, and thousands of submissions, the resulting law left many disappointed. feature writer hEnry cookE provides an overview of the laCk-lustre attempt to proteCt us from ourselves.

New Zealand has a binge drinking problem. In some countries saying that would be controversial; in New Zealand it’s akin to confirming the sky’s hue. For every ridiculous statistic we brush over, we all have countless stories of drunken debauchery, of friends who needed their stomach pumped, and relatives who are far more fun than they should be.

Yet, for all the hand-wringing and ad campaigns we run, for over a decade the only major law change we made was a 1999 amendment that lowered the purchase age.

Late last decade, the independent Law Commission, led by a former Prime Minister, published an extensive report on alcohol in New Zealand, complete with a barrage of proposals for the government to adopt. These recommendations were wide-ranging and hugely ambitious. There were 153 of them over 513 pages, coming in at around 2.4kg when printed. They ranged from the more notorious (raising the purchase age to 20) to the more vanilla (further restrictions on alcohol advertising). these proposals were based on a gigantic amount of medical research and extensive surveying from all around New Zealand.

Not all of the recommendations made it into the finished bill, which passed late last year. many did not. While it was a strong backlash from youth and the resulting conscience vote which kept the purchase age at 18, National stopped pushing for or never pushed for several other recommendations. Clubs don’t have to shut at 2am. Alcohol is not significantly more expensive. 12 per cent Bourbon and Cokes are just as prevalent.* In December this year, you won’t be able to buy booze from a dairy or Four Square—which is legitimately inconvenient—but probably won’t stop your night in its tracks.

The aforementioned Prime Minister who led this group isn’t just any former Prime Minister either. Sir Geoffrey Palmer is perhaps the only New Zealand Prime Minister more famous for things he did outside of office than in, appointing the group which suggested New Zealand’s change to MMP. He even edited Salient at one point. These recommendations aren’t just based on extensive research, they also come from someone with considerable gravitas, along with your standard “what have I done?!” plot narrative, since Palmer passed liberalising alcohol legislation in 1989.

Dr. Paul Quigley, an emergency medicine specialist at Wellington hospital, isn’t too pleased with the legislative outcome. “The alcohol reform bill fails to address the key elements of control that are needed to create change,” he claims, listing price, availability and advertising as areas of need. “Without any form of effective price regulation this bill is ineffective.” Too much of his time is taken up dealing with binge drinking’s consequences. “75 per cent of all injuries that occur after 10pm are alcohol-related. On a friday or saturday night this represents an average of nine additional patients between 10pm and 8am on top of the normal workload.” These injuries are also generally more serious. He isn’t alone. Labour’s Charles Chauvel called the bill a “much-truncated version of what the Law Commission asked”, and the New Zealand Drug Foundation labelled it as “meh”.

So why were so many of these well-researched proposals dropped?

Alcohol reform is incredibly tricky for any mainstream politician to tackle. 85 per cent of New Zealanders between the ages of 16-64 drink. That’s a lot of people to offend. Both sides of the political spectrum have issues in ideology.  National portray themselves as “tough on crime”, especially Judith “Crusher” Collins, and at least a third of all crime in New Zealand is committed by someone with booze in their system. On the other hand, drinking is a personal choice that in and of itself doesn’t infringe on the liberties of any others—therefore any interference is a betrayal of their libertarian  leanings—an extension of the “nanny state”. Raising any taxes—even excise taxes—is never a good look for a Tory. regulating and restricting the free market sale of alcohol cuts even deeper into the National party’s bone, shouldn’t the government get out of the way and let the market right itself?

Over on the left, Labour aren’t in much safer waters. while raising taxes and interfering with the market is a pretty solid leftist move, restricting personal freedoms is not. Drinking is the preferred stimulant for a wide range of Labour voters, from youth (who generally skew left), to the working class, to the intelligentsia. Hell, Marxism was born in a beer hall!

Of course, not everyone believes the bill was blunted.

Justice Minister and architect of the bill Judith Collins sees it as a reasonable compromise. “We wanted to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, especially to children and young people […] but 85 per cent of kiwis consume alcohol; the vast majority do so responsibly with no residual harm. With the new laws we believe we’ve got the right balance between unfairly impacting the rights of responsible adults to make their own decisions, and a small minority who abuse alcohol.” She was disappointed that the purchase age remained at 18, but was still happy with the bill, especially since “this is the first time any government has put controls on alcohol in place.”

Deputy Labour leader Grant Robertson disagrees, viewing the bill as “a giant missed opportunity.” He sees the purchase age proposal and ensuing debate as a red herring, one which distracted the New Zealand public from more meaningful reform. “it’s just about the least relevant of all the things we could have done. We didn’t do anything about pricing. we didn’t do very much at all about hours of sale. We didn’t do anything about advertising and sponsorship. we didn’t do anything about education.” He doesn’t see purchasing age as an effective tool, since “if it went to 20, 18-year-olds would still have booze,” and the whole focus on age was “hypocritical,” since alcohol abuse is prevalent in all age groups.

The press coverage largely focussed on the purchase age, a simple and somewhat controversial rule change that was easy to write about. The mechanism of the conscience vote made the story even more exciting, with each MP having to pick a faction. Youth wings of all the major parties railed against it. It tarnished the whole reform bill with its brush, however well researched it was.

But did this “red herring” of purchase age really turn the bill into a “missed opportunity”, as Robertson claims? While the last break between bills was over twenty years, National left doors open to further restrictions. They did drop the proposed excise tax, but they are currently investigating a minimum pricing scheme. Minimum pricing places a baseline price on a standard drink, hurting the more efficient forms of
getting wasted—your cask vodka or cheap wine—while leaving most beer alone. They didn’t rule out limiting the strength of RTDs either, calling on the industry to “self-regulate” with a voluntary code or government will step in. National are obviously much happier keeping their hands clean of the free market, with Collins happy to give the industry this “great opportunity to play its part and show some leadership in limiting the harm to young people caused by RTDs.” Ssked how long the industry had to “self-regulate”, she clarified that she would like to see the code enacted by the end of the year. The new law also empowers local councils to enact their own rules, setting maximum trading hours and moving liquor stores away from schools, which Collins sees as “a particularly powerful tool for communities.”

Dr. Quigley remains unsatisfied. He was a supporter of the split age proposition, where 18 and 19 year olds could drink in bars but not buy alcohol to take home, since private drinking “causes the greatest problems”. He advocates for a price change far more drastic than National are investigating, “changing [alcohol] from an everyday commodity to ‘something special’, a treat.”

Price can get a little touchy. We seem to have decided as a country that artificially increasing the cost of cigarettes vastly in order to discourage use is acceptable, but not everyone smokes. Nearly everyone drinks, and drinking responsibly is barely unhealthy. punishing the many for the actions of a few is never very popular, and people generally agree that a higher price wouldn’t actually stop them from drinking. Students already waste a lot of money on alcohol—would a higher price just make them waste even more? In a culture with drinking at its centre, alcohol sometimes seems a more essential liquid than petrol.

Despite their disagreements on how far the bill went, most commentators are in agreement that legislation alone is not enough. The law can only prod our culture, not change it. These little inconveniences on the way to getting drunk all add up, but that doesn’t change the fact that we both accept and expect each other to drink to the point of collapse. This culture is everywhere—from the knowing grin your older co-workers exhibit when you turn up hungover, to the ‘hilarious’ stories we all trade about our earliest experiences. No single law can change all that, but it can help. when we changed our drink driving laws it was still socially acceptable to drive intoxicated. It really isn’t any more, and our rates have plummeted. Perhaps these new laws could have prodded our culture in a more sober direction too, but it isn’t exactly clear that not being able to buy scrumpy at a dairy will do that. Maybe next time.

*A limit on the percentage of RTDs wasn’t actually proposed in the report – but both National and Labour suggested they wanted to impose one at different times.

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