Chance to change our approach to alcohol harm

Experts say 8000 New Zealanders have died because of hazardous drinking. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: ODT files.
The proposed new cannabis legislation is a great model for the tougher regulation of alcohol, write Doug Sellman and Tony Farrell.

While we debate a change to the legislation governing the sale and purchase of cannabis, limp alcohol laws continue to negatively impact on New Zealanders.

We would undoubtedly be a safer, happier, more productive country if we had stronger regulation of alcohol.

Stronger regulation would reduce the harm from alcohol including assault, injury, absenteeism, depression, suicide, cancers, liver damage, brain damage, multiple other organ damage and death, which is all costing us so much in terms of eroding peace, GDP and quality of life.

The proposed new cannabis legislation is best described as "strong regulation", and would enact a set of strategies for greater control of cannabis that are similar to those that international experts have been proposing for many years through the World Health Organisation for the better control of alcohol.

Three strategies are strongly represented in the new legislation. —

1. No marketing — the new cannabis legislation bans marketing of cannabis, which means no advertising of cannabis or cannabis sponsorship of sport and other enterprises.

2. Limited accessibility — the sale of cannabis will be limited to specialised businesses and therefore not from supermarkets, potency and types of products will be strictly controlled, and the hours of purchase limited according to community wishes.

3. Adult age of purchase — the age of purchase has been set at 20 years, out of legal reach by teenagers.

Several other strategies that provide for both improved control of cannabis and benefit to the community. —

4. Relatively high pricing — an excise tax is being applied which will provide new funds for general public use and has the potential to be a mechanism for keeping the price of cannabis relatively high.

5. Drug driving countermeasures — existing driving legislation covers cannabis impaired drivers but the presence of the cannabis referendum, and the fact that cannabis impaired driving injury is arguably one of the main sources of harm and therefore cost, is encouraging research into new technology aimed at detecting recent use of cannabis in order to keep the roads as safe as possible.

6. Treatment for heavy users — the overall purpose of the new legislation is to set up a health-based approach to drug use rather than one driven by the criminal justice system.

Just imagine the public benefits if we had such a scientifically grounded system of control for alcohol — no marketing, limited accessibility, R20, reasonably high price reflecting alcohol’s dangerousness, stronger drink-driving countermeasures, and renewed energy for helping people who drink too much.

Alcohol related harm would likely reduce considerably.

The main reason we don’t have a "strongly regulated" system of control over alcohol is because of Big Business’ control of the alcohol industry and its backroom influence on successive governments.

If the referendum produces a "Yes" vote and the incoming Government enacts the new cannabis legislation, time will tell whether this "strongly regulated" model for cannabis is eroded in the future by the involvement of Big Business in the proposed cannabis industry. On the other hand, success of this new "strong regulation" for cannabis could act as a great model for better control of alcohol.

  • Prof Doug Sellman is chairman of psychiatry and addiction medicine at the University of Otago, Christchurch, and medical spokesman for Alcohol Action NZ. Dr Tony Farrell is a general practitioner in Tauranga and chairman of Alcohol Action NZ.






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