Reducing alcohol harm

Some may take a cynical and simplistic view of the University of Otago's efforts to reduce the harm from students' alcohol use.

It is easy to trot out the argument that everything would be OK if the university had not bought and closed down various student watering holes, forcing students who wanted to drink to do so at their flats where they were unsupervised.

However, this conveniently ignores the impact of the ready availability of cheap alcohol at supermarkets and liquor stores which made it increasingly difficult for those student bars to turn a profit.

For those who drink in bars, the practice of pre-loading (drinking at home so that they are already well on the way to being sozzled before they go out) has reduced the amount of wallet-lightening bar owners are likely to achieve.

Wanting drinking to occur in controlled environments is understandable and laudable, but it would be naive thinking to assume that all such drinking will be responsible and that it will stop all students binge drinking or getting drunk.

That said, the move to trial later closing at the Starters Bar, owned by the Otago University Students Association (OUSA) since 2018, seems a sensible one.

It follows the increased awareness around the dangers of student parties following the
tragic death of second-year student Sophia Crestani at a flat party last year.

Apparently, the hope is that the extended hours in the student-centred bar may lessen the number of students pre-loading and then heading to bars in the central city, something which is associated with increased alcohol-related harm.

Southern District Health Board medical officer of health Susan Jack says the risk associated with increased trading hours is mitigated by Starters not being in a cluster of licensed premises (as in the Octagon).

The fact that the bar is also not required to make a profit for the OUSA may also positively affect the way it is managed.

Although the licence has been issued for three years it will come up for review in a year, so the pressure will be on the OUSA to show it is working well.

The university has been trying to address issues around drinking since Prof Sir David Skegg's time at the helm, with a stricter code of conduct, a ban on alcohol advertising and Campus Watch all part of the mix.

Current vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne makes the point that breaking the back of alcohol-related chaos takes teamwork.

It is encouraging to see such teamwork locally, but nationally there has been a reluctance from the major political parties to brave taking on transformative and likely controversial change in the 10 years since the 2010 Law Commission report ‘‘Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm’’.

Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who was leading the push for reform, still considers four of its recommendations could have a huge impact — raising the age of purchase to 20 from 18, regulating advertising and sponsorship, raising prices and introducing an excise tax.

From what we have seen of Labour and National policies so far, neither party is keen for such changes.

And another thing

One minor triumph on an alcohol-related issue this year has been the decision of the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation to agree to mandatory consistent labelling on alcohol products warning about the danger of drinking while pregnant.

This issue had dragged on for about 20 years, with the alcohol industry trying to scupper it by raising a variety of concerns including the cost of using red ink on the labels.

However, it has been decreed red will be used. The industry will be given three years to introduce the labels, a delay which has disappointed those concerned about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) who have been pushing for better health warnings.

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