Could New Zealands government have gone further?

Could New Zealand's government have gone further?

A raft of measures aimed at combating alcohol abuse was unveiled by the New Zealand government on Monday (23 August). While industry representatives have broadly welcomed the reforms, Ben Cooper writes, public health campaigners have criticised the Government for not going far enough.

One might expect the introduction of a raft of alcohol laws to elicit at the very least an equivocal reaction from industry advocates but the package of reforms announced by the New Zealand government this week has been roundly welcomed by alcohol industry representatives. 

The reform package sees the adoption, in full or in part, of 126 of the 153 recommendations made in a report by the New Zealand Law Commission entitled 'Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm', published earlier this year.

However, there has been criticism that, while many of the Law Commission's findings have been followed up, some policy recommendations, notably with regard to the drink-drive limit, pricing and advertising, have not. On minimum pricing, the Government has called on the retail industry to provide data to contribute to continuing research on the issue.

Among the measures to be introduced are a variable minimum purchasing age of 18 for on-premise and 20 for off-sales, restricting RTDs to 5% abv and to smaller containers; making it an offence for anyone other than a parent or guardian to provide alcohol to under-18s without parental consent; giving local authorities control over the concentration, location and opening hours of alcohol outlets, while setting national default maximum hours; and increasing penalties for licence breaches and tightening controls over liquor bans in public places. 

The Government also plans to extend the existing offence of promotion of excessive consumption to any business selling or promoting alcohol, setting out examples of unacceptable promotions such as giveaways. It will also make it an offence to promote alcohol in a way that has special appeal to people under the purchase age and said these changes would apply to any promotion, including TV advertising and billboards.

Justice Minister Simon Power described the package as a "starting point" for Parliament's consideration of alcohol laws and that the Government would "listen carefully" to the public through the select committee process. He said he hoped to introduce legislation into Parliament in October and to pass it into law before the end of this parliamentary term. 

Stephen Swift, executive director of the Brewers Association of New Zealand and Australia, said he was pleased that the Government had taken a "specific and targeted" response to the Law Commission report.

However, Professor Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre, said the Government had chosen not to act on some of the Law Commission's most important recommendations. "It sounds bold and progressive but it's just spin. What is missing are the main things that would make any difference." Sellman calls the reform package as it stands "a comprehensive suite of half-hearted changes, policy tweaking and deferred initiatives".

Sellman is a member of Alcohol Action New Zealand, a coalition including academics, health and social care professionals and church leaders, which is pushing for reducing the drink-drive limit for adults to 0.05% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) immediately (New Zealand has already moved to reduce the level for under-20s to zero), putting "major restrictions" on alcohol marketing, advertising and sponsorship; removing alcohol from supermarkets; and introducing pricing policies to "put an end to extremely low alcohol prices".

Sellman told just-drinks: "We don't see anything substantial [in the reform package] that is going to change the adult heavy drinking culture which is the major issue."

Certainly there is a considerable emphasis on youth measures in this package of reforms, for instance with regard to RTDs and the variable minimum drinking age, which Sellman believes is partly due to the way public and media concern tends to be focused. "There is more about youth in the papers and in the media generally," Sellman said.

Swift said he supported the youth focus. "Youth drinking is a concern not only to communities but to our companies."

Regarding the decision to leave the drink-drive limit at 0.08% BAC and conduct further research, Swift said the issue would be decided by the evidence, while on the issue of minimum pricing, another recommendation in the Law Commission report not taken up, he said it would be difficult to make such a policy workable. He suggested the evidence for advertising reform presented by the Law Commission was "weak at best", and said the Government "was right to be wary" about advertising reforms mooted in the report.

Thomas Chin, chief executive of the Distilled Spirits Association of New Zealand, said the measures announced on Monday were "largely soundly based on careful analysis of the factual evidence". 

In particular, Chin welcomed the emphasis being placed on increased parental responsibility. "The Government has recognised that one of the changes required to bring about a reduction in alcohol abuse is increased parental responsibility. The obligation it intends to put on parents to ensure that they have explicit permission to serve alcohol to the friends of their teenagers may be hard to police but, backed by a public information campaign, it may be a first step in changing attitudes that lead to less irresponsible behaviour."

Criticism of the legislation has not only come from health professionals but also from opposition politicians. Jim Anderton, leader of the Progressive Party, said the Government had "missed the best opportunity in a decade" to reform the nation's alcohol laws. He accused the Government of "cherry-picking" from the Law Commission report, and by ignoring recommendations on pricing, drink-driving, sponsorship and advertising had failed "to take the tough decisions that would actually make a difference to New Zealand's drinking culture".

Both Sellman and Anderton believe the Government has been influenced by industry lobbying. Anderton said: "The truth is the alcohol lobby has got to John Key's government and they don't have the guts to do what's right."

Stephen Swift refuted this accusation. "We do have representation in Wellington, and we would like to be in touch with government as would every lobby group but the Government had fairly tight controls over access on this issue and seemed to have arrived at fairly good conclusions by themselves."

He conceded that his organisation had had discussions with the Government following publication of the Law Commission report but said it would not be true to characterise this as intense lobbying. "There was lobbying by all sides but it's wrong to characterise that as intense when you're talking about the brewers. Anti-alcohol activists will never be satisfied. It is the difference between a fundamentalist approach and a moderate negotiated approach."

The question now is whether the Government's actions will spark further debate and acrimony or alleviate the pressure for legislative intervention. It had been considered likely that alcohol would be a key issue in next year's General Election though now that the Government has acted, albeit not to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, this may now be less likely.

As Stephen Swift put it: "This is a significant package of reforms and I think it would be hard to say otherwise in a political context."