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Peter Wilson: Law Commission Report Needs A Strong Response

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

The Law Commission's report on the sale and supply of liquor is still new in the minds of politicians but so far the response hasn't been encouraging -- apart from a few exceptions, there doesn't seem to be the determination or the will to seriously tackle New Zealand's drinking problem.

The evidence that the problem exists is overwhelming -- it leaps from the 513 pages of the commission's report. The conclusion is that something has to be done and a raft of recommendations have been made.

Two of the most important are increasing the excise on alcohol to make drinking more expensive, and raising the purchase age from 18 to 20, reversing the decision that was taken to lower it.

The report notes that between 1998 and 2008 there was a 9 percent per capita increase in the consumption of alcohol, coinciding with the lowering of the age.

Within hours of the report's release, the Government had ruled out increasing excise duty. That is apparently seen as unfairly penalising people who drink responsibly. And National doesn't favour introducing new taxes, although it didn't have a problem zapping smokers for an extra $200 million a year.

Raising the age limit isn't so simple to deal with. This has been and still will be a conscience vote issue in Parliament -- if a vote on it is taken at all.

Some MPs strongly support raising the age limit but they can't force a vote unless the Government wants one or a member's bill comes out of the ballot proposing it.

The Dominion Post had a go at testing the waters but only 62 of the 122 MPs responded. Of those who did, eight said leave it at 18 or were leaning in that direction, and seven favoured raising it to 20. Splitting it between 18 in bars and 20 in off-licences interested five MPs and the other 42 offered various reasons why they hadn't made up their minds.

Attitudes may well become more strongly defined in the coming weeks but may never be tested, which would probably be a relief to some of them.

Justice Minister Simon Power say he favours "a regulatory approach" to liquor laws, which could mean tinkering with existing regulations or passing laws to create new regulations. He hasn't explained the Government's intentions regarding the purchase age, or whether it will seek a vote.

The Law Commission's conclusions are unequivocal. It wants a new Alcohol Harm Reduction Act to replace the existing Sale of Liquor Act 1989.

"New Zealanders have been too tolerant of the risks associated with drinking to excess," it says.

"Unbridled commercialisation of alcohol as a commodity in the last 20 years has made the problem worse. New Zealanders now spend $85 million a week on alcohol."

Its president, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, says alcohol is being sold at "pocket money prices". He considers it is essential to change that, but it isn't going to happen.

An Otago University expert in the health effects of alcohol, Dr Jennie Connor, says making it more expensive is a no brainer. "For most people, putting the price up is not going to stop them drinking. But it will reduce the amount they drink -- and particularly for heavy drinkers, drinking a little bit less has a big effect on everyone around them."

Sir Geoffrey makes the same point in his foreword to the report. "Of most concern now is the research supporting a causal link between alcohol intoxication and aggression."

He says that in March this year he chaired a panel of police commissioners from Australia and New Zealand in Melbourne.

"There was agreement across all jurisdictions that alcohol is the biggest problem facing police forces."

Of our politicians who really do want to deal with the problem, Progressive Party leader Jim Anderton is the leading advocate.

He has statistics showing 60 percent of people are under the influence when they commit crimes.

"There are now 70,000 physical and sexual assaults a year in New Zealand that can be attributed to alcohol abuse. That's 1350 a week."

And the Government's contradictory attitudes to raising the tax on tobacco as a means of reducing the number of smokers while refusing to do the same on alcohol as a means of curbing excessive drinking hasn't escaped him.

He says the same argument applies and describes the Government's position as "hypocrisy at best and political gamesmanship at worst".

The ACT Party's Sir Roger Douglas lashed the Government for the same reason. He doesn't support the tobacco increase because he believes it is just another example of individual responsibility being cast aside but he questioned why, if ministers believed raising the price of cigarettes was going to be effective, they were refusing to apply the same solution to excessive drinking. "If you think it works with smoking, why not raise it 600 percent -- that would fix it," he says.

It has been 24 years since the last full review of New Zealand's liquor laws and the Law Commission's inquiry was exhaustive, with more submissions received than any other it has undertaken. Sir Geoffrey says it was asked for an evidential report, and that is what the Government has been given.

If the politicians don't grasp this nettle and deliver a strong response which will have a real impact on excessive drinking, they will have lost an opportunity that won't arise again for a good few years. And in time they may look back and regret that they didn't.

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