Government unveils new alcohol plans

02:25, Aug 23 2010

The Government has announced sweeping liquor law reforms, with a new split alcohol purchase age the headline feature.

Justice Minister Simon Power has this afternoon unveiled a package that takes up - partially or completely - 126 of the 153 recommendations of the Law Commission's report on liquor laws.

Key changes include:

* A split alcohol purchase age of 18 for bars and 20 for off-licences.

* Banning the sale of pre-mixed RTDs that have more than 5 per cent alcohol or that contain more than 1.5 standard drinks.

* Making it an offence for anyone other than a parent or guardian to provide alcohol to an under-18-year-old without a parent's or guardian's consent.

* Allowing the Minister of Justice to ban alcohol products which are particularly appealing to minors or particularly dangerous to health. This is expected to apply to things like milk-based alcohol drinks or alcoholic ice-blocks.

* Allowing local communities to decide on their own "alcohol plan" with details about the concentration, location, and opening hours of alcohol outlets to be included.

* Default national opening hours of 7am - 11pm for off-licences and 8am - 4am for bars and clubs. Local alcohol plans can over-ride the hours, however, with longer or shorter hours if they wish.

* Changing the definition of "a grocery store" to make it very hard for a dairy to get a liquor licence.

The proposal for a split purchase age would make New Zealand only the second country in the world to mandate separate ages by premises.

However, political parties are expected to vote on that part of the legislation on conscience, so it may not succeed. MPs will still be able to propose that the age goes up to 20 everywhere, and this could find favour.

In the end, both proposals on age could fail to gather enough support and the status quo of 18 could remain.

A feature of the package is that the Government has not moved on the Law Commission's proposals to increase tax and implement a minimum pricing regime. Instead, the Government has said it will "investigate" minimum pricing by asking for sales and price data from liquor outlets.

New Zealand's infamous culture of "after-ball parties" will change as a result of the package.

People aged under 18 will have to have express consent from their parent or guardian to be allowed to drink alcohol. And where the consent is provided, it will be up to the people organising an after-party to make sure the liquor is flowing in "a responsible manner".

Only parents or guardians will be able to provide consent - it will be illegal for brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles or a family friend to provide alcohol to someone who is under 18.

The changes also mean an overhaul of liquor licensing, which officials expect will lead to fewer outlets selling alcohol.

New licences, or existing ones coming up for renewal, will face new hurdles.

Local alcohol policies will be allowed, which could mandate rules about where outlets may be, how many outlets there are and what hours they can trade. The design and lay-out of a proposed premises and the impact of it on the area will now also be considered.

Power said the package was "a starting point" for Parliament's consideration of alcohol laws. More consultation with the public through the select committee process would be considered.

"The statistics can't be ignored and clearly show a problem with alcohol that must be addressed," Power said.

Alcohol was estimated to contribute to 1000 deaths every year, and was a major driver of crime.

Alcohol was implicated in 30 per cent of all police recorded offences, 34 per cent of recorded family violence, and 50 per cent of all homicides, he said.

"What the Government has heard from the New Zealand public is that the pendulum has swung too far towards relaxation of alcohol laws," Power said.

"This package focuses on minimising alcohol-related harm, including crime, disorder, and public health problems, and zeros in on where harm is occurring - particularly around youth.

"But there is a balance to be struck between not unfairly affecting responsible drinkers and dealing with the considerable harm alcohol causes."

The director of Christchurch's National Addiction Centre, Professor Doug Sellman, said the Government was wrong to see alcohol abuse as essentially a youth problem.

Research found that 92 per cent of New Zealand's heavy drinkers were 20 years and over, and 70 per cent were 25 and over.

"Aiming measures primarily at youth while avoiding anything substantial that would reduce heavy drinking among adults is scapegoating young people for the country's heavy drinking culture and fails to address the main issue," he said.

The Government had avoided the big policy decisions, such as increasing prices and restricting advertising, and ended up with a package that was "like treating cancer with a couple of aspirin".