The Alcohol Non-Reform Bill
The Alcohol Reform Bill will begin its final reading in Parliament today. This Bill represents the National-led Government’s long awaited response to the Law Commission’s comprehensive evidence-based review of the liquor laws which occurred during 2009/2010.
The Bill has already been talked up by the government’s PR machine as a ground-breaking piece of legislation that stretches Parliament’s influence to change the heavy drinking culture in New Zealand, but it is just a disappointing damp squib.
Even on cursory examination of the new Bill, the multiple tinkerings it contains are overshadowed by the lack of substantial reform, making it unlikely there will be any appreciable change in the heavy drinking culture of New Zealand as a result of its adoption. The current economic recession has been much more effective in decreasing heavy drinking in New Zealand than everything in this weak new Alcohol Reform Bill combined.
But it is worse than weak; the new Bill is shocking. It is inexcusable that the government is too timid and too captured by the big alcohol-related businesses to tackle the real problem driving the heavy drinking culture in NZ – yes, the vested interests of a powerful alcohol industry which will continue to enjoy relatively unregulated free market conditions to push their drug products at New Zealanders if the Alcohol Reform Bill is enacted as is.
There are eight main new things in the Bill. Four of them are general measures and four relate more specifically to teenagers. The four general measures are:
1. Allowing councils to establish local alcohol plans. This has been promoted as a centrepiece of the new Bill in which local communities will have the power to determine the number and placement of liquor outlets and hours of trading in their region. But this will require ordinary citizens, who are concerned, highly motivated and have the spare time, to square off against the Foodstuffs, Progressive Enterprises, and Hospitality Associations etc with all of the latter’s legal and financial resources at the ready, at the multitude of hearings that will be necessary in every region of New Zealand. The government meanwhile will be standing on the side-line, hand in hand with the alcohol industry, bashfully saying they are unable to get involved because it is a local issue for local people to determine.
2. Changing the current 24 hour trading hours to a default involving a ban on alcohol sales from 4am in the morning (from on-licences) to 7am (off-licence). This “reform” is so feeble it is laughable – a so called Alcohol Reform Bill that bans alcohol sales for three hours around dawn. A government committed to alcohol reform would set new progressive trading hours that would make a difference, such as 10am – 10pm off-licence and 10am – 1am on-licence, and then if local communities are so deranged as to want to increase alcohol-related harm in their region by increasing alcohol commercialisation, they would have the choice to liberalise these hours in their local alcohol plans.
3. Cutting down on excessive alcohol promotions at the point of sale. Sounds good but this is a minute change compared with what is needed in terms of dismantling the broadcast advertising of alcohol and alcohol sponsorship of just about everything, that maintains the industry’s portrayal of alcohol as a normalised and glamourised essential product in the life of NZers (just like tobacco was 40 years ago).
4. Defining more stringently what a supermarket is for the purpose of alcohol sales. This will end alcohol sales in some convenience stores, which is good, but this is simply closing a loophole in the previous legislation which did not intend convenience store sales.
Half of the main things in the Bill relate to youth drinking; despite the fact that of the 700,000 heavy drinkers in New Zealand (using a standard WHO definition of heavy drinking), less than 10% are under the age of 20. Over 90% of NZ’s heavy drinkers are 20 years and over.
The four youth measures are: limiting the alcohol content of RTDs, limiting advertising to young teenagers, strengthening parental supervision requirements for young teenage drinkers and raising the purchase age for liquor stores and supermarkets to 20.
This final measure is the most substantial element of the entire Bill in terms of potential to reduce alcohol-related harm. But it only goes half-way unless National’s Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe can persuade enough of Parliament to adopt an R20 purchase age across the board as recommended by the Law Commission. An R20 purchase age was supported by 78% of the general public over the age of 15, according to the latest Health Sponsorship Council scientific survey. Only 13% supported “keep it at 18”. The best scientific evidence available on alcohol policy demonstrates the effectiveness of a higher purchase age, but the half-way measure of a split age has not been shown to reduce drinking or harm.
It will be a tragedy if Parliamentary debate is hijacked by purchase age. Not only would this focus unfairly on youth, it would detract from the importance of the reforms that are not in the Bill; those required to deal with the unrelenting promotion of alcohol, the unbelievably cheap price of alcohol, the extraordinary general availability of alcohol and the fact that people 20 years and over will continue to be able to drive around drunk and still be under the legal limit (0.08) for driving.
Expect the following PR lines to be used by the government to justify being spineless about alcohol reform:
“we are enacting 130 of the 153 Law Commission recommendations” (but ignoring the ones that would actually make a significant difference);
“this Bill represents the first time alcohol has had the brakes put on it for more than 40 years” (but failing to say that the Bill won’t change the damaging drinking culture; it may just prevent it from getting any worse);
“legislation can only go so far in changing the drinking culture” (this is a favourite line but is false; look how at how legislation has changed the smoking culture and the mobile-phone-use-while-driving culture);
“it would be unfair to penalize the majority to pay for the actions of a few” (these words are in fact carefully prepared PR words of the alcohol industry that appear to have been unconsciously picked up and used by government ministers and other MPs over the past two years to justify the lack of any real steel in the new legislation – raising the price, for instance, won’t impact significantly on moderate drinkers and dismantling the advertising wouldn’t impact on the pocket of any drinkers).
Over the next few day we are likely to see the alcohol industry’s own massive PR machine in concert with the Business Roundtable and advertising industry in close support, massaging the government message that this limp Bill represents a monumental change in the way alcohol is going to be supplied and sold in NZ. There will also be comments reported about the negative impacts on the industry and therefore on NZ as a whole.
These are dark and shallow times in which “all business is good business”, and we don’t yet clearly differentiate businesses that promote health and civil society from those consumption-based addictionogenic enterprises that threaten it, including the gambling, sex, junk food and alcohol industries.