OPINION: So the Government has capitulated to lobbying by the alcohol industry, and will no longer set limits on the amount of alcohol in alcopops or Ready to Drinks, as they are called in the trade.
I feared this would happen when, 18 months ago, a smooth talking Australian lawyer representing Independent Liquor flew in from Sydney to speak to the select committee that was hearing submissions on the Alcohol Reform Bill.
In the nicest possible way, he made what I saw us threats to the members of Parliament who were present on that day. Flanked by Mark Unsworth, one of the country’s pre-eminent lobbyists, he pointed out that under the Trans Tasman Mutual Recognition Treaty with Australia, a product that could legally be sold in Australia, could also be sold in New Zealand.
Therefore, he said, if you propose a ban on RTDs with more than 5 per cent alcohol in them, we will simply ignore your ban, import them from Australia and sell them in New Zealand. And there will be nothing your government can do to stop their sales, he said triumphantly.
He added that the industry would also take a case to the World Trade Organisation, and other bodies, arguing that we were breaching various free trade treaties.
His message was clear. The company he represented would deliberately flout the laws of our land, if it threatened their profitability. And there would be little our government could do about it because its sovereignty had been undermined by the trade treaties we had signed.
It’s not often that industry representatives turn up at select committees and issue threats, so committee members appeared stunned by his presentation.
Government members looked especially concerned, and said they would get advice from the Justice Ministry and Crown Law.
Ever since then, the industry has been lobbying the Government heavily to drop its proposed restrictions on the amount of alcohol in alcopops. A few weeks ago the managing directors of four major liquor companies went to see the Justice Minister Judith Collins for ‘high level talks’ about their concerns.
I imagine that similar comments to the ones we heard in select committee were made.
One hundred and eighty million RTDs are sold each year – or about 500,000 each day. So they certainly constitute a substantial share of the liquor market in New Zealand.
But the Government wasn’t proposing to stop RTDs from being sold. It was merely proposing to lower the alcohol content of RTDs that are sold in bottle stores. Higher strength RTDs could still be sold in restaurants and bars.
When the main consumers of alcopops are 14 to 24-year-olds, particularly young women, and research suggests that they are commonly used by binge drinkers, the Government’s proposal made perfect sense, from a public health point of view.
Indeed, any government that was serious about reducing young people’s binge drinking, could hardly ignore alcopops, or their role in binge drinking. Alcopops are filled with sugar to mask the taste of alcohol, and to appeal to young drinkers.
They are frequently mixed with energy drinks, to make them even more intense. And they are often marketed at young people in a predatory way.
Some have an alcohol content of 10-12 per cent – considerably higher than most beers.
The Government’s backdown further weakens the already pallid Alcohol Law Reform Bill, and makes it unlikely it will have any real impact on young people’s binge drinking habits, as it was intended to do.
A voluntary industry code is just that – voluntary – so members will not be obliged to join it.
Already a spokesman for DB Breweries has said he doesn’t trust some of its competitors to stick to a voluntary maximum alcohol level in RTDs. And because the code will be voluntary, there will be no monitoring to ensure it’s enforced.
The alcohol industry may have won a major victory, but the health and well-being of our young people will suffer as a consequence.
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