Water in the drink?

The Government's much-criticised alcohol reforms have become law, with the Alcohol Reform Bill passing its third reading in Parliament last week.

The Bill, which was split into the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Bill, the Local Government (Alcohol Reform) Amendment Bill and the Summary Offences (Alcohol Reform) Amendment Bill, was introduced to Parliament at the end of 2010, and was the Government's response to the Law Commission's 2010 report, ''Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm'', instigated by the former Labour government.

The Bill's stated objectives were to reduce excessive drinking and alcohol-related harm (including crime, disorder, health impacts), to support the safe and responsible sale, supply and consumption of alcohol, and to improve community input into alcohol licensing decisions.

The new laws will mean communities can have a say on the trading hours and location of licensed premises, licences will be harder to get and easier to lose, there will be stronger rules about the types of stores eligible to sell alcohol and the display of alcohol in supermarkets and grocery stores, consent must be obtained from parents or guardians before alcohol can be supplied to minors, and there will be stronger controls on alcohol advertising and promotion - particularly that which appeals to minors. The legislation will take effect within the next 12 months in part to give territorial authorities, licensing bodies and licensees time to prepare for the changes.

Justice Minister Judith Collins, who introduced

the Bill, said the legislation marked ''a major milestone'', which delivered a ''wide range of measures to reduce alcohol-related harm in our families and communities'' and was the ''first time in more than two decades Parliament has acted to restrict, rather than relax, our drinking laws''.

But Opposition parties and health sector groups have been critical of the reforms throughout the process, saying they have not gone nearly far enough in terms of adopting the Law Commission's 153 recommendations, including a tax increase on alcohol, minimum alcohol pricing, raising the alcohol purchase age and limiting the alcohol content of some drinks such as ready-to-drink beverages - on which the Government has left the industry to draw up its own code - and they claim the Government has been swayed by powerful industry lobby groups. Labour's justice spokeswoman, Lianne Dalziel, called the Bill ''toothless'' and a ''travesty'', saying it was ''not a shadow of the law the Law Commission would have written'', and should been led by the health, not justice, ministry.

''Watered down'' or not, the impact of the new rules has been feared by licensed premises, which have warned that expected additional licensing costs may force some out of business. While the various impacts of the new legislation will only become clear in time, for now it is surely a positive thing that any measures that go some way towards reducing the considerable harm caused by alcohol - through violent offending, domestic abuse, long-term physical and mental health issues, road crash statistics and deaths, and is estimated to cost taxpayers $1.2 billion annually - can only be a good thing for individuals and society.

As the Law Commission said in its 2010 report: ''It is hard to think of any other lawful product available in our society that contributes so much to so many social ills. While alcohol misuse is only one of several risk factors contributing to these harms, alcohol distinguishes itself because, unlike many other factors associated with crime, injury and social dysfunction, the harmful use of alcohol is a modifiable risk factor. In other words, as a society, we can modify our use of alcohol.''

Ms Collins said the reforms ''achieved a sensible balance'' between curbing that harm ''without unfairly affecting the majority of those who are responsible drinkers''. That remains to be seen, but she is certainly right when she says everyone has a ''part to play'' to achieve social change around alcohol.