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As the Government prepares to introduce a major Alcohol Reform Bill, a new University of Otago study has highlighted an association between higher numbers of nearby liquor outlets and increased risk of binge drinking.
The Bill, which, at least partly, aims to increase community input into alcohol outlet-related licensing decisions, was to have been introduced to Parliament last month but is now expected within the next few weeks.
The Otago researchers found that people with more off-licences within a kilometre of their home were more likely to be binge drinkers and to be harmed by alcohol.
Off-licences are places, including supermarkets, liquor stores and convenience stores, where takeaway alcohol can be bought.
The study used a national survey to assess individual alcohol drinking patterns and self-reported harm from alcohol.
The types of alcohol-related harm included effects on performance at work, on relationships, and on physical health and finances.
There were 1925 respondents, 1770 of whom (92%) could be mapped according to their residential address.
These addresses were then compared with the location of alcohol outlets.
The researchers noted that in New Zealand over the past 20 years, there had been "a relaxation of central controls over supply and marketing of alcohol".
Since the liberalisation of the Sale of Liquor Act in 1989, the number of licensed premises had more than doubled, from 6295 in 1990 to 14,183 in June last year.
The proportion of alcohol sold by off-licences had also risen, from 59% to 68% of the total.
With each extra off-licence alcohol outlet within 1km, the odds of binge drinking increased about 4%, the study lead author, Prof Jennie Connor, of the Otago University's department of preventive and social medicine, said.
This did not sound like much, but the difference between five and 15 nearby off-licence outlets was a "48% difference in the odds of binge drinking and 26% more alcohol-related harm".
She said this was an important finding, considering that national alcohol policies were under review.
"We need to rethink the ease of obtaining liquor licences and how many alcohol outlets are appropriate."
Dunedin medical officer of health Dr Marion Poore agrees.
She says that "turning around New Zealand's heavy-drinking culture is a whole-of-community issue".
"Citizens should ask new councils to act now, by developing local alcohol plans that limit the number and location of outlets," she said.
Prof Connor said she intended to make a submission in person to the parliamentary select committee that will consider public feedback on the Alcohol Reform Bill.
The Otago University research was timely, she said. Otago researchers had earlier made their preliminary findings available to the Law Commission before it released its major report, titled Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm in April this year.
Responding to that report, Government officials noted in July that, under the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, there was "limited scope for community input" into local liquor licensing decisions.
There were restrictions on who could object and over what criteria, the primary one involving the applicant's "suitability", and no objections could be made on grounds of density of outlets or general alcohol-related harm in the area.
The Government proposed introducing "local alcohol policies", through which further liquor licences would not be granted in areas close to, or having reached, saturation point for licensed premises, officials said.
The Otago research has just been published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a British-based international journal. Researchers said it appeared to be the first such study involving a national population sample.