Fighting a losing battle with the bottle

00:00, Jul 23 2014

Police and the MidCentral District Health Board are taking their fight against the harmful effects of alcohol to the shop floor of a Palmerston North supermarket, in a test case that could have implications for licence holders around the country.

While the police and DHB's arguments that the way New World Aokautere displays its alcohol products breaches the law might well be valid, it's difficult to shake the feeling that we're just nibbling around the margins of one of New Zealand's biggest social issues.

As reported in yesterday's Standard, the two organisations are opposing the supermarket's application to renew its off-licence with the Palmerston North District Licensing Committee. The hearing is being treated as a test case for new regulations under the Alcohol Reform Act, with the supermarket's owner, Foodstuffs, flying in two lawyers who have asked the committee to provide an interpretation on the legislation that can be applied nationwide.

The case centres on where in the store the alcohol section is located, and how visible it is. The three committee members have reserved their decision, but their ruling will likely set a framework that will affect how supermarkets around New Zealand can display alcohol.

It's a debate worth having, but seems trivial when viewed against the magnitude of alcohol-related harm in this country. The sad truth is that the big opportunities to reduce the damage alcohol causes in society were lost when the Alcohol Reform Bill was passed. While the law contained some helpful reforms, alcohol industry lobbyists ensured the legislation was a watered down version of the evidence-based recommendations made by the Law Commission. Key provisions that were ditched included an increase in the excise tax on alcohol and raising the purchasing age.

After years of debate and an excellent, comprehensive report from the Law Commission, political timidity won the day and some of the biggest issues driving New Zealand's drinking problem were put in the too-hard basket.

So, we're left now to haggle over which aisle in the supermarket alcohol can be displayed, and whether it's visible from the checkout. The evidence presented by the police and health board to the licensing committee this week no doubt suggests these issues influence alcohol purchasing and consumption behaviour. But the big battle was effectively lost in Parliament 18 months ago, and it's difficult to see these little skirmishes having a dramatic impact on the country's battle with the bottle.


Manawatu Standard