Liberalising the licensing laws in NZ has been a surprisingly slow process for a nation of drinkers. Even downing five drinks in one session can be regarded a 'binge'. David Robertson assesses the changes now taking place and wonders if consumer power can overthrow the authorities.

For a country that prides itself on consuming large quantities of alcohol, New Zealand is still amazingly uptight about its licensing laws.

In a major blow for civil liberties, the previous conservative government finally overcame its political timidity last year and changed the law. The drinking age was dropped to 18 from 20 and the sale of alcohol was permitted on a Sunday. But the changes were not complete and supermarkets are still forbidden to sell "hard liquor" and corner stores (dairies) cannot sell any form of alcohol. Of course many do and the police turn a blind eye - as they do to prostitution in this country. But it seems staggering that for a country where alcohol is a fundamental part of its obsessive sporting culture that such strict rules existed.

Australia had notoriously stringent licensing laws with pubs closing at 6pm until the 1960s. This created the legendary 5pm rush. The bars would be lined up with drinks and the punters would rush in after work and start throwing back the booze as fast as possible. Legend has it that by six, there would be bodies everywhere as the punters had literally drunk themselves under the bar.

New Zealand was not much better and only managed to get semi-civilised laws introduced in 1989. There was an immediate 23% drop in per capita alcohol consumption proving conclusively that allowing adults to behave like adults does work. But it took another 10 years before the sanctity of Sundays was overridden by common sense and before 18 and 19 year olds were accepted as adults. But the liberalisation could now come to a grinding halt as studies by the Alcohol Drug Foundation, published this week, show that binge drinking among teens has gone up 11% since the rules changed.

The figures show 44% of 14 to 18 year olds consumed five or more drinks during their last session. As alarming as these figures may be, the most worrying aspect is the definition of five drinks as a binge. This should have most of us seriously worrying - or just ignoring do-gooder health awareness types as usual. And while common sense has helped New Zealand move closer towards the rest of the civilised world in terms of licensing there are still enormous discrepancies.

For example, this week two Wellington supermarkets applied to sell booze 24 hours a day. The police backed the petition to the Liquor Licensing Authority but the chief medical officer opposed it. The judge turned both down but did extend the Sunday licensing. He allowed one to open from 7am till midnight on Sundays and the other from 8am till midnight. This is crazy. If you leave aside the fact that the police backed the applications, how can you justify handing
out different licensing hours for identical requests? Proof, if more was ever needed, that interfering judges, governments and religious leaders are inconsistent and out of touch.

Let us make up our own minds!

David Robertson