Justice Minister Judith Collins' decision to wait and see on a policy that could significantly reduce alcohol harm has been called election-year cowardice.
Minimum alcohol pricing - a scheme focused on cut-price liquor such as cask wine - could save the country an estimated $624 million in alcohol harm over a decade, a Justice Ministry report found.
The scheme, already established in Canada and voted through by the Scottish Parliament, sets a base price for alcoholic beverages based on the number of standard drinks per bottle.
The Justice Ministry report concluded "overall, any price increase will effectively reduce harmful alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm".
"A minimum price or excise increase would have some impact on low-risk drinkers, but the savings to society significantly outweigh the lost benefits to consumers."
Despite this, Collins' summary of the report said "there [was] no compelling evidence that increasing the price of alcohol is the correct approach".
Because the policy would "hit moderate drinkers in the pocket", the Government would not consider introducing minimum alcohol pricing for five years.
In that time, local alcohol policies and other initiatives from 2012's Alcohol Reform Bill would have taken full effect, she said.
But Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell rejected Collins' conclusion there was no compelling evidence behind moves to raise the price of liquor.
"If you look at the detail of the report, either minimum alcohol pricing or excise tax increases . . . impacts on the kind of drinking we want to target - youth drinking and heavy and dangerous consumption."
Bell called a delay of five years a "cynical" move.
"No government wants to go into an election year saying they're going to raise the price of alcohol.
"That political motivation is really disappointing - if we did increase [the] price, the benefits are immediate."
Collins said yesterday that the governments of other countries, including Britain and Australia, had similarly rejected minimum alcohol pricing.
She said her decision was in line with the ministry's recommendation to wait five years, stemming from its report.
The ministry's calculations showed that during a decade, a minimum alcohol price of $1.20 would reduce the country's crime costs by $676m and healthcare costs by $170m. But unless excise was increased alongside it, the initiative would put an extra $1.3 billion into the pockets of the alcohol retailers.
The Brewers Association supported the delay. Director Jenny Cameron said that, under new laws, the industry could not advertise liquor discounted beyond 25 per cent.
"That will go some way to address some of the issues around cheap alcohol being promoted."
Cameron also disagreed with Bell, saying the jury was still out on how minimum alcohol pricing affected the behaviour of binge drinkers.
But Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams said the Government knew that increasing prices worked, which was why it was now targeting tobacco by bumping up taxes year by year.
In British Columbia, Canada, a study showed alcohol-related deaths dropped by nearly a third after the minimum alcohol price was raised by 10 per cent, she said.
"Alcohol kills about two people a day in New Zealand. The minister's sitting there looking at an option to address that in a very targeted, cost-effective way and she's saying it's not necessary."
Williams believed Collins' claim that minimum pricing would unfairly affect moderate drinkers was "bollocks".
"It's designed to curb that really cheap access that makes alcohol available at pocket-money prices for young people."
WHAT BEVERAGES WOULD BE AFFECTED?
Cask wine (over 25 per cent of products would rise in price)
White wine - specials; red wine - specials; spirits
White wine - full priced; red wine - full priced; sparkling wine; cider; beer - specials and full priced; RTDs; liqueurs; brandy; port (less than 10 per cent of products would rise)
* Survey based on more than 300 low to mid-priced alcoholic beverages from eight Wellington supermarkets and liquor stores.
- The Dominion Post
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