Policy's focus criticised

Claim Lap biased against bars The release of the Dunedin City Council's draft local alcohol policy this week has drawn some critical responses. Chris Morris reports.

Dunedin's draft alcohol policy is ignoring the elephant in the room by focusing on bars, and not supermarket sales, Prof Doug Sellman, of the National Addictions Centre, says.

However, it appears the Government was also too ''gutless'' to tackle the issue, meaning councils will instead be left to face legal challenges on their own, he told the Otago Daily Times.

Prof Sellman was commenting following the release of the Dunedin City Council's draft local alcohol policy (Lap) this week.

The draft policy was yet to be adopted, but would be discussed by councillors at a full council meeting on Monday before being released for public consultation next month.

However, the reaction from bar owners, Hospitality Association of New Zealand Otago branch president Mark Scully and Prof Sellman has been swift.

The parties all criticised the policy's focus on bars, when the majority of alcohol sales - and alcohol-related harm - could be traced back to supermarkets and other off-licence retailers, which together accounted for 70% of all alcohol sales.

If adopted unchanged, the policy would force bars to close one hour earlier, at 3am, with a one-way door policy from 1am, a ban on shots after midnight and no drinks in bars' outdoor areas after 11pm.

Supermarkets and bottle stores would be prevented only from selling single units of RTDs, cider and some beers - excluding boutique beers - and have only a slight reduction in trading hours.

Instead of allowing alcohol sales between 7am and 11pm each day, the draft policy would limit trading to between 7am and 10pm - a one-hour difference each day.

Prof Sellman told the ODT the issue of off-licence sales was ''critical'' to addressing alcohol-related harm, and the ''minimal'' changes suggested by the council's draft policy did not go far enough.

Instead of a one-hour reduction, supermarket trading hours should be ''curtailed quite significantly'', or stopped altogether, he argued.

''Actually, all alcohol should come from specialist liquor stores, not family supermarkets.

''You don't have a class B-equivalent drug sold in family venues, which is what we've got in New Zealand.''

Reports suggested the only people buying alcohol at 7am were ''alcoholics, essentially'', and ''having a bit of space between the last drink and the next drink can be a good addiction interrupter'', he said.

Terrace Bar owner John MacDonald, speaking earlier this week, agreed, saying the draft policy was ''heavily biased'' against bars.

A slight reduction in hours for supermarkets, and a ban on some single unit sales, would have little effect.

''They're still allowed to sell it cheap, and they do, and they will. We're being penalised in virtually every angle . . . but it's business as usual for the off-premise outlets.''

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull had some sympathy for their concerns, saying he wanted evidence the changes being suggested would tackle the problem before making any final decisions.

''It's too easy to just say the most visible places that people drink are pubs, so therefore we'll make them close earlier.

"You have to have some better argument than that.''

The Octagon could be a vibrant, or occasionally threatening, late-night environment, but the question was whether late-night pubs were to blame, or people who ''might sit at home, get themselves absolutely tanked on cheap [alcohol], and then come in and annoy a whole lot of law-abiding citizens'', he said.

''I could make a very good case, and I suspect the cafe and bar owners will, that the effects of selling cheap booze - and I mean really cheap booze - until 11pm in supermarkets... is far worse than having a bar in a controlled atmosphere open until 2am or 3am.''

Prof Sellman said alcohol policy should have been left to the Government to tackle at a national level, but it appeared too ''gutless'' to take on big business interests behind the industry.

Instead, councils were being asked to tackle the issues alone, leaving them exposed to legal challenges from the alcohol industry.

''I think it's a very fraught process, and ultimately we actually need a government to be a little bit more robust in their job,'' Prof Sellman said.

Spokeswomen for supermarket chains Progressive and Foodstuffs New Zealand, asked to comment on the criticisms, declined to comment in detail yesterday.

Both are expected to consider Dunedin's draft Lap before responding to the council in due course.

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