Alcohol and tobacco heavies weigh in

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 13:06 26/07/2012

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OPINION: The media has always displayed a pretty keen interest in the alcohol consumption habits of young women.

So far, that social conscience hasn't extended to running similarly outraged stories about last week's efforts by the alcohol industry to preserve their lucrative trade in 'alcopop' drinks targeted at young women.

What brought the country's top liquor industry executives speeding to the Beehive last week was the Alcohol Reform Bill proposal to ban liquor stores from selling ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs) with more than 6 per cent alcohol content, and more than 1.5 standard drinks per container.

In the Law Commission report that triggered the current Bill, researchers had found that the most common drinkers of RTDs were 14 to 24 year olds, and women in particular. The alcohol industry executives wheeled up the heavy artillery for their meeting last week with Justice Minister Judith Collins. Reportedly, the industry's position is that the legislation being considered would violate international laws by unfairly targeting RTDs. Collins was told that such a move could - for instance - breach our Closer Economic Relations deal with Australia.

If so, this would be an odd outcome, given that Australia introduced a whopping 70 per cent tax increase aimed at RTDs in 2008, which resulted in an immediate 30 per cent decline in alcopop sales the following year. (Beer and spirits sales rose in tandem, producing only a slight change in overall alcohol consumption in Australia.)

New Zealand has chosen not to go down that road. It hasn't increased the excise tax on alcohol, nor enforced minimum pricing for alcohol, nor placed restrictions on alcohol advertising or sponsorship.

The All Blacks, perhaps the nation's most powerful role models for the young, have not been deployed to promote the responsible use of alcohol.

On the contrary, the Rugby Union reportedly told Parliament's select committee hearings that rugby should be "leveraging its status and political strength more to mitigate the risk [to sponsorship] or even turn it into a more positive commercial outcome for brewery partners".

In other words, hypocrisy is rampant when it comes to our attitudes towards alcohol consumption by the young.

Society seems more than willing to denounce the young women who consume the alcohol industry's products. All the while the same industry puts pressure on Government ministers not to impose any meaningful restrictions on their dubious trade.

Coincidentally, much the same lobbying process was evident last week in the cigarette industry response to recent advertising restrictions, and to the further regulations still under consideration.

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Retail outlets will now be required to conceal the cigarette displays that have formerly served as a lucrative trigger for nicotine cravings.

Meanwhile, the Government is still pondering whether to follow Australia's lead, and introduce mandatory plain packaging for cigarettes.

The cigarette industry's response has included setting up a website to rally resistance to further restrictions on its lethal trade.

Its spin doctors have also been arguing that plain packaging will not reduce the sales of cigarettes. If that's true, one wonders why the cigarette industry hasn't cut packaging costs, and introduced plain packaging long ago.

Meanwhile, the nation is watching a Government pressured by business heavyweights, over a couple of high profile social problems. Any buckling of the knees will be judged harshly by voters.

- The Wellingtonian

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