Lobbying MPs over booze 'waste of time'

Geoffrey Palmer
Geoffrey Palmer
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 courts.

''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,'' she said.

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.

Jennie Connor
Jennie Connor
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.

Anne Stevens
Anne Stevens
''Don't concentrate on the politicians; it's a waste of time. There's got to be cultural pressure for things to change.''

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 whole population.

''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 your groceries.''

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, she said.

Campbell Roberts
Campbell Roberts
''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 regulate alcohol.

The problem
• About 80% of prisoners have committed alcohol- or drug-related offending.
• About 50% of prisoners return to jail within five years of being released.
• About 80% of defendants have alcohol or drug dependency issues.
• 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.

Solving it
• Increase the price of alcohol.
• Make the purchase age 20 years.
• Ban alcohol advertising on television.
• Control alcohol advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
• Remove alcohol from supermarkets.
• Increase prisoner access to alcohol and drug dependency programmes.
• Reduce trading hours.
• Make alcohol policies compulsory for local authorities.

- rosie.manins@odt.co.nz

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