OPINION: After more than two years of long and often acrimonious debate, Parliament finally passed the Alcohol Reform Bill into law last December.
The stated aim of the legislation is to reduce the serious harm caused by alcohol, without penalising people who drink responsibility.
It included measures tightening a range of laws relating to the sale and supply of liquor.
Critics of the legislation claimed it did not go nearly far enough. New Zealand, they suggested, had become an "alcohol saturated society", which meant we needed significantly tougher restrictions on price, availability and promotions.
While submitters and politicians continually referred to the need to make decisions "based on evidence", incorrect claims and exaggerations were often asserted as fact during the process.
A number of those key assertions have been disproved by Hazardous Drinking in 2011/12: Findings from the New Zealand Health Survey, released by the Ministry of Health in mid-April.
Compared with the 2006-07 results, the survey showed that fewer adults consumed alcohol during the past year, with the figure dropping from 84 per cent to 80 per cent.
The decrease was particularly significant for 15 to 17-year-olds.
However, the crucial findings relate to the rates of hazardous drinking which, despite what people may have read in the submissions or heard in the debating chamber, are actually going down.
In the past five years, the level of hazardous drinking has significantly decreased for men (from 30 per cent to 26 per cent) and marginally decreased for women (13 per cent to 12 per cent).
There was a modest but important drop in the rates of hazardous drinking among Maori adults, with the rate falling from 33 per cent to 29 per cent in the latest survey.
The survey also found the rate of hazardous drinking for young drinkers (18 to 24-year-olds) had substantially dropped, from 49 per cent in 2006-07 to 36 per cent in 2011-12.
Obviously, we still have work to do to reduce alcohol-related harm in our society and the hospitality industry is determined to play its part.
However, the survey shows that the situation is not nearly as disastrous as many submitters and politicians claimed.
Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne made some sensible comments when he released the hazardous drinking report, noting there "are promising indications that fewer people are drinking and younger people are drinking more responsibly".
He described the overall findings as encouraging, positive and a step in the right direction.
It is a shame that the Ministry of Health's Hazardous Drinking report was not released until well after the debate had finished and the legislation was passed.
If its findings had been available earlier, the entire debate could have been more grounded in reality, thus improving the decision-making process.
However, the results will be important, as councils develop their local alcohol policies.
These policies, known as LAPs, are intended to allow the community to have a greater say in decisions regarding the location and density of licensed premises, the conditions under which they operate and their opening hours.
While the local alcohol policies are voluntary, many councils are expected to introduce them at the end of the year.
The hospitality industry expects there will be pressure to reduce the number of licensed premises and to restrict the trade of those that remain.
Councils and licensing authorities need to have an accurate picture of drinking in New Zealand.
The survey definitively shows that the rates of hazardous drinking, particularly among young people, are not shooting through the roof.
We need to ensure that progress on improving our drinking culture continues, without intruding on the rights of New Zealanders to exercise sound judgment and socialise responsibly.
Bruce Robertson is chief executive of Hospitality New Zealand, which represents 2400 hospitality businesses.
- The Dominion Post
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