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Chris Ford: New Booze Law Proposals Merit Further Study

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

This week the Law Commission released a discussion paper recommending a number of changes to our liqour laws in the wake of growing evidence that we are a country which has a terrible binge drinking culture.

I find it ironic that the Law Commission President, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was Prime Minister during the time when Parliament passed the Sale of Liqour Act 1989, which is the legislation that governs liqour sales in New Zealand at present.

That law, passed by the free market-oriented Fourth Labour Government, largely deregulated the sale of alcohol in this country at the behest of the booze barons like Doug Myers of Lion Nathan who was that at time an eminence grise within the Business Roundtable. Over the next twenty years, the boundaries of the law were pushed as more retail outlets (such as supermarkets) were able to become off-licenses, on-licence premises (such as pubs and clubs) were able to open into the small hours of the morning and the drinking age was progressively lowered from 20 to 18 (a move I personally still support).

Over the last 20 years though the relative freedom to purchase alcohol has been blamed for a lot of social ills including increased suicides, road fatalities and injuries amongst young males and, in particular, street crime and domestic violence. The level of teenage drinking has increased (but come on, teenagers have always drunk alcohol) while the level of binge drinking across all age groups has risen exponentially.

Don't get me wrong, I am no wowser as I usually buy a Speight's six pack as one of my few luxuries which I then consume in front of the telly on a Friday night after a long week studying, blogging and working. However, I then don't go out and bash people up or abuse them in anyway and nor do I drink with the express intention of getting drunk as people are now doing in increasing numbers, even when I'm out socially.

Therefore, some of the proposals do have their merits in terms of restricting the number of off-license premises, introducing more alcohol ban areas particularly in urban centres, extending the number of days that alcohol can't be sold from a premises (perhaps re-introducing the ban on Sunday trading or have premises nominate one day of the week when they don't open), lowering the blood-alcohol limit for drivers and raising the price of alcohol through raising the excise levy. Limiting the trading hours of pubs and clubs is another idea worthy of consideration in that any potential new patrons would be barred from entering a licensed premises at 1am with a final closing time of 3am.

The one proposal I am not in favour of is the establishment of two minimum drinking ages, one for on-licenses and another for the sale of alcohol from off-licenses. The Law Commission recommends that the minimum age for the former category be 18 and the latter 20. While this dual age idea does have its merits in terms of the fact that many people are more inclined to drink responsibly in pubs than they are in their own homes or in other off-license environments (e.g. at parties or informal gatherings), the practicalities of enforcing it would be nightmarish to say the least and that is why I feel the drinking age should stay at 18.

That's why I believe that we need a more intelligent policy on youth drinking too that acknowledges that it does go on and will do so for as long as alcohol remains a relatively freely available recreational drug. I do know that the current law allows for alcohol consumption by minors within the confines of a private home so long as there is adequate adult supervision. This same loophole applies within licensed premises where minors can drink provided they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. But what I would also advocate for is the opening of 'under-age pubs' which would predominantly sell non-alcoholic drinks but would be able to sell a very limited number of alcoholic drinks (mainly beer and wine but not strong spirits) to people between the ages of 13 and 18 years with the amount sold being dictated by a person's age. These 'under age' bars could be used as social centres where young people could meet and would be restricted to opening on weekends only so that they would not operate on school nights. These venues could also host youth oriented events such as concerts and school/tertiary balls and would ideally be controlled and owned by local councils and funded through a dedicated portion of the alcohol levy. Furthermore, drug and alcohol education could be delivered through these sites (as could sex education). Overall, this would help teenagers learn to drink alcohol (should they wish to do so) in a safe and responsible manner and under very responsible adult supervision at all times.

The quid pro quo might be that alcohol on-sales by people over 18 to those under that age who purchase liqour on private off-license premises for that express purpose would be banned. In other words, people younger than 18 and no younger than 13 at least would be restricted to drinking within the confines of their own homes and/or at under-age pubs and nowhere else.

But, as has been pointed out by youth advocates, binge drinking is not confined to younger people alone but is a problem across all age groups. As the Alcohol Liqour Advisory Council (ALAC) advertisements say "It's not what we're drinking, it's how we're drinking!" Therefore, a cross-community response is needed to tackle the binge drinking culture by introducing some of the measures outlined above as well as extending the availability of drug and alcohol counselling services which have seen some of their funding cut under this National Government. Public education and awareness of the harms caused by alcohol needs to be stepped up and become more ongoing.

That's why I feel that the proposed new booze law changes merit further study so that they are workable and address the real issues openly, honestly and in a non-age discriminatory way as possible.

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