Solutions to New Zealand's binge-drinking culture problem
and ways to reduce alcohol-related offending are being ignored
by politicians, a Dunedin audience heard this week.
Former prime minister and leading legislator Sir Geoffrey
Palmer was one of three panellists at the University of Otago
discussing the topic of severing the link between alcohol and
prison. About 70 people attended the panel discussion, which
also included Prof Jennie Connor, head of preventive and
social medicine at the university, and Major Campbell
Roberts, founder and director of the Salvation Army's social
policy research and parliamentary affairs unit.
Organised by the Otago branch of the Howard League in
conjunction with the university's Centre for Theology and
Public Issues, the panel discussion was chaired by Howard
League member and senior barrister Anne Stevens.
She said the most compelling evidence of alcohol's harmful
nature as a catalyst for crime could be found in the Dunedin
''Every day, there's a stream of people who've assaulted
someone in an alcohol-fuelled state, who've drunk and driven,
and people who have committed acts of dishonesty to support
alcohol dependency. Many of those people will go to prison,''
Sir Geoffrey, chairman of the New Zealand Law Commission from
2005-10, said politicians faced extreme pressure when it came
to alcohol regulation and crime policy.
Many knew prison was not the answer, but bowed to public
pressure to be seen as tough on crime, he said.
''We've got something like 8000 prisoners and rising, and
that needs to be broken, but it takes enormous political
courage to do that if you're feeling the heat of public
opinion at election time.''
Sir Geoffrey, as a retired politician, was comfortable
labelling prisons as ''universities for crime'' and
advocating unpopular law reform.
''I would increase the price of alcohol by increasing excise
tax by 50%; put up the purchase age to 20; ban advertising of
alcohol on television and control advertising very carefully;
regulate promotions and sponsorship; have tighter trading
hours; and make it compulsory for all local authorities to
have an alcohol policy,'' he said.
''Those measures would reduce the risks. Otherwise, we're
going to produce more binge drinkers and addicts. I'm not a
wowser but having read all the literature I am extremely
worried about where we're going as a society about alcohol.''
If alcohol was objectively analysed for licensing, it would
probably be prohibited, Sir Geoffrey said.
Maj Roberts said politicians he had talked to about the
controversial Sky City casino deal knew it was wrong but
would not vote against it because of ''party politics'', and
he said it was the same in respect of alcohol.
''Don't concentrate on the politicians; it's a waste of
time. There's got to be cultural pressure for things to
The Salvation Army's ''drug court'' trial in Auckland was a
success and further benefits would come from greater
collaboration between agencies, he said.
Since 2010, the ratio of offenders in the Salvation Army
programme had doubled to 40%, Maj Roberts said.
''That would suggest the pathways are improving. It's
pointless to do a lot of work with people in prison if
there's not a programme outside to help them.''
Prof Connor supported Sir Geoffrey's suggestions, as
international research showed they worked, were
cost-effective and reduced alcohol consumption across the
''When people are trying to control their drinking, it's
incredibly difficult to do so when you can't go to the
supermarket and buy food for your family without being
surrounded by alcohol cues, which are that alcohol is part of
It was also important for prisoners with alcohol and drug
problems to receive help while in jail, and such programmes
''paid for themselves'' by reducing the rate of reoffending,
''These are the members of our society that are least
likely to access services when they're in the community, and
this may be the only opportunity they have to come into contact
with the help they need.''
Prof Connor also cited factors that hampered alcohol reform
in New Zealand, particularly the pressure on politicians by
the alcohol industry and increasing trade agreements between
countries, which made it hard to regulate goods.
The panel discussion preceded a Howard League dinner at the
Savoy, where Sir Geoffrey spoke further about the struggle to
• About 80% of prisoners have committed alcohol- or
• About 50% of prisoners return to jail within five years of
• About 80% of defendants have alcohol or drug dependency
• In a random week, about 3800 people appeared in courts
nationwide for alcohol-related offending.
• Alcohol is too cheap and accessible.
• Most youth offending is alcohol-related.
• Politicians are pressured by the alcohol industry.
• Alcohol is considered normal.
• Increase the price of alcohol.
• Make the purchase age 20 years.
• Ban alcohol advertising on television.
• Control alcohol advertising, promotion and
• Remove alcohol from supermarkets.
• Increase prisoner access to alcohol and drug dependency
• Reduce trading hours.
• Make alcohol policies compulsory for local authorities.