Return the drinking age to 20 - Law Commission

BY TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 12:07 27/04/2010

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The Law Commission is urging the Government to hike alcohol prices by an average of 10 per cent and raise the drinking age to 20.

In a report released today, the commission also calls for regulations to prevent "irresponsible" promotions that encourage the excessive consumption or purchase of alcohol, the introduction of national maximum closing hours for both on and off licences - 4am and 10pm - and regulating alcohol advertising and sponsorship over time.

Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer said while there had been many benefits associated with the liberalisation of New Zealand's liquor laws in 1989, the resounding message the commission had received from thousands of public submissions was that the pendulum had swung too far.

A saturated alcohol market had led to intense competition and the over commercialisation of alcohol.

"One of the consequences of alcohol being promoted and sold at pocket money prices is that we risk losing sight of its status as a legal drug, capable of causing serious harm to others."

While many New Zealanders drank in a low-risk manner, a significant minority - as many as 25 per cent of all drinkers - drank heavily, Sir Geoffrey said.

A much larger number engaged in episodic binge drinking.

A Health Ministry survey revealed six in 10 drinkers had become intoxicated at least once in the past year.

In other findings:

* One in three men aged 18 to 24 reported drinking enough to feel drunk at least weekly.

*One in five drinkers also reported driving while feeling under the influence of alcohol in the past year.

* One in six adults had experienced harm from someone else's drinking in the past year.

International evidence showed the most effective policies to reduce alcohol related harm were those which targeted the availability, price and promotion of alcohol.

A recommended 50 per cent increase in excise tax would push alcohol prices up by an average of 10 per cent but would have the greatest effect on low cost alcohol which was known to drive the most acute harm.

There was overwhelming support in submissions meanwhile for a return to 20 as the minimum purchase age.

"In the decade since the decision was made to lower the purchase age, the scientific understanding of the developing brain has advanced considerably."

This included greater understanding of the risks early onset of drinking posed to the adolescent.

"We would be negligent if we disregard this evidence," Sir Geoffrey said.

He urged Parliament to treat the commission's recommendations as a package "rather than cherry picking the more politically palatable elements."

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