Editorial: Political courage needed on alcohol

Last updated 05:00 28/04/2010

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OPINION: The Law Commission has prescribed some strong medicine to cure New Zealand's drink problem. It should be considered carefully before the public and the politicians decide how much they want to swallow.

The 514-page report is nothing if not thorough. It is the product of two years' work. There were 2939 submissions and 50 meetings.

That is why it is disappointing that Justice Minister Simon Power has been so quick to dismiss a key recommendation designed to cut consumption through a price rise by increasing excise duty. Even if ultimately rejected, it deserved longer consideration than it was given.

Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer urged that the package be adopted as a whole with no cherry-picking. However, seeking the holus bolus adoption of the massive change contained in the 153 recommendations was always unrealistic, especially with a Government acutely attuned to public sentiment.

The problem the commission faces is that, in seeking to deal with problem drinkers, it has also affected the majority, who believe they drink responsibly.

No-one wants drunks running amok in the capital's party zone, but nor do they want to be told that they cannot buy a bottle of wine to take home from a supermarket after 10pm.

There are similar reservations over the proposed rise in the drinking age to 20. Whatever the science – and recent research indicates that the effects of alcohol on young brains have been underestimated – convincing the public that people old enough to vote, join the armed forces and marry are not mature enough to buy a cold beer at the end of a hot summer's day will not be easy.

More particularly, politicians who want the age to rise will have to tell a sizeable chunk of their voters – the 18 to 20-year-olds – that a right they previously had would be taken from them. In the face of a promised organised campaign by young people, including the youth wings of major parties, to keep the age at 18, that is asking for a lot of political courage.

The commission's package is also up against the reality that the law can do only so much in changing the binge-drinking culture – and then only if there is an expectation it will be enforced. That does not happen now, despite assurances given when the last reforms were instituted. In seven years there have been only six convictions for the sale or supply of liquor on licensed premises to intoxicated people, something that would surprise anyone who has spent any time in bars.

However, it is undeniable that the commission has highlighted the fact that alcohol abuse is an increasing problem, and that there is a need for change. Equally undeniable is the need to move away from deciding liquor issues on a conscience vote. That does not encourage coherent, well-thought-out legislation.

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The Law Commission package may have flaws, but it deserves to be treated seriously. The onus now is on the politicians to either adopt it or to offer an alternative strategy. The time for patch-up solutions is past.

- The Dominion Post

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