Alcohol abuse has been a fixture of New Zealand society since
even before the days of organised settlement, its effects on
the wider community have waxed and waned, it has been a
political issue since parties were formed, the subject of
triennial polls, and a significant negative influence on the
health and wellbeing of individuals and families.
It has also been a welcome source of pleasure for many
people, a vast source of revenues for successive governments,
and its production has contributed substantially to the
wealth of the nation.
No other beverage has been the subject of so much cynical
promotion and no other legal drug so widely accepted in
society: its real and potential dangers have been so long
recognised in a country where social engineering has played
such a large role that only in recent years has the term
"liberalisation" been applied to the rules that govern
alcohol's sale and distribution.
Caution has been the byword.
Our most recent experiment with liberalisation has proved to
be a fatally attractive combination for our youth in the sale
of wine and beer in supermarkets and the reduction of the
minimum age of purchase to 18 years.
No doubt mature and sensible drinkers have welcomed both
innovations - supermarket sales statistics would seem to bear
out that presumption - and the State has certainly benefited
from taxes on alcohol, for excise tax alone produced more
than $900 million in 2008.
But a consequence of recent rounds of liberalisation has also
led to the production and publication of the Law Commission's
study, "Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm", which
resiles from the widespread inference when the changes were
made that New Zealanders were by then sophisticated consumers
of alcohol and not the nation of drunks of Kiwi mythology.
The report makes the bold claim of offering "a blueprint for
reducing both the short- and long-term effects of alcohol
misuse on society".
Its recommendations are not aimed at those whose use of
alcohol is light and of low risk, but at the boozers for whom
alcohol is an accessible prop for the psyche.
As such, the effects would be very wide were the
recommendations to be adopted.
Prices would be raised through tax increases; "irresponsible"
promotions curtailed; the minimum purchase age revert to 20;
maximum closing hours imposed for on- and off-licences; and
more restrictive regulation of alcohol advertising and
The commission's public statements referred to "a saturated
alcohol market", "the over-commercialisation of alcohol", and
the fact that alcohol can be purchased for less than the cost
of bottled water - "pocket money prices" in its telling
Some 25% of all drinkers drink heavily when they drink, the
commission estimates, and larger numbers are involved in
intermittent outbreaks of binge drinking.
But no law passed by a modern Parliament can control how
people drink; all that can be done short of prohibition is to
have a set of measures directed at governing the promotion
and sale of alcohol.
Notably, very few of those who advocate the sale of alcohol
also promote to an equal degree education about safe drinking
practices among our young people, especially among our
adolescents: there is no point in further tinkering with the
regulations unless and until such measures are firmly and
To some extent, the additional recommendations of the
commission - restrictions on who can supply alcohol to minors
and in what circumstances; increasing the ability of local
people to influence how and where alcohol is sold in their
communities; a civil cost recovery regime for those taken
into custody when grossly intoxicated - may have a greater
long-term impact than simply increasing the purchase age.
If the problems resulting from liberalisation have now been
identified, solutions will be wholly political.
The recommendations ought to be a test for all parties in the
House - assuming they are even accepted by the Government -
since the greatest risk for them is the potential backlash
from the great majority of responsible drinkers whose pockets
might be affected by their implementation in whole or in
In the past, the liquor laws have been such a touchy subject
voting in Parliament has usually been a matter of individual
conscience, often leading to all kinds of accusations of
lobbying influence on MPs.
The Government has indicated change will be regulatory in
nature and will not be hurried - let alone occur before the
Rugby World Cup and the general election soon after - and
perhaps with an eye on the latter, it is "extremely unlikely"
to increase excise tax at the recommended level as part of
the reform agenda.
But on such an important matter as the population's health
and wellbeing, a far greater degree of urgency is demanded.