Government criticised for dropping RTD liquor ban

The Government is being accused of kowtowing to the alcohol industry after it dumped plans to ban the sale of high-alcohol ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages.

Justice Minister Judith Collins yesterday announced the Government would not restrict RTDs with more than 6 per cent alcohol content from off-licence shops, as she had indicated it would in May.

Instead, the Alcohol Reform Bill will include a "regulation-making power" for the Government to restrict the sale of RTDs in future. Until the powers are exercised, RTD sales will operate under the industry's own code.

Collins said the Government was concerned about evasion tactics and pushing the industry overseas.

Greens health spokesman Kevin Hague today described the Government's position as "pathetic".

"This is not a case where where what we need to do is balance the commercial interests of industry against harm to New Zealanders. I believe avoiding harm to New Zealanders has got to be the sole consideration over our approach to this."

The industry had had years to develop a voluntary code and had failed to do so, he said.

"The only reason they are now seeking a voluntary code is they believe they will now be able to develop something that places fewer restrictions on them than the Government would regulate."

Labour MP Lianne Dalziel, who is a former associate justice minister who first pushed for alcohol reform, says Collins' amendments fails to deliver measures that will curb binge drinking.

"It's a sham and a shame from a minister who has had considerable pressure put on her from the industry."

RTDs were a concern for police and Women's Refugees who reported large quantities of high-alcohol caffeinated drinks at violent altercations, she said. "A lot of people don't realise how drunk they are until the caffeine wears off."

Dalziel has put up a proposed amendment to the bill to introduce a minimum pricing regime and says extremely cheap alcohol is a major problem which the Government should address.

"I was shocked to see recently on television a one-litre bottle of spirits for less than $10. That is a time bomb waiting to go off."

Justice Ministry advice on proposed amendments by Labour and the Greens, obtained by Fairfax Media, rejected all 17 opposition amendments put up so far.

The Drug Foundation says RTDs are one of the most cynical forms of alcohol.

Executive director Ross Bell said the Law Commission hadn't made any specific recommendations around RTDs but suggested there should be protections for what the industry could develop in future, such as aerosol alcohol or powdered alcohol.

"But we were happy when Cabinet wanted to see specific controls over RTDs."

The industry had warned the Government it could get around a ban on high-alcohol RTDs by such methods as parallel-importing, he said.

"The Government did get nervous and got more nervous when they were met by the heads of companies saying it wasn't enforceable."

The Drug Foundation wanted a "policy trade off" for the dumping of plans to restrict RTDs, Bell said.

"If the Government is going to water-down and kowtow to the industry, we would like to see the Government make similar regulation powers around minimum pricing."