Bar owners call for public drunkenness laws

If you're drunk in public you should be prosecuted or fined, bar owners say.

They serve up millions of alcoholic drinks each year, but publicans want drinkers to face criminal liability if caught intoxicated in a public place.

They say it's unfair that liquor licence holders are prosecuted for letting in drunks – but individuals face no legal penalty.

Licensees who admit or serve drunk patrons can have their licences suspended or cancelled by the Liquor Licensing Authority. They also face fines of up to $10,000 in the district court.

But Hospitality New Zealand says most alcohol-related problems in the central city involve young drinkers "pre-loading" at home on cheap alcohol before heading into town.

"The industry just increasingly feels blamed for this culture," Hospitality NZ regional manager Sara Tucker said.

"If we really want to deal with this sort of issue we must bring some personal responsibility for the drinkers into this equation."

The comments come amid new research by Wellington Hospital's emergency department into alcohol-related injury and assaults. The data identifies trouble "hot spots" around Wellington.

Hospitality NZ is calling for legal sanctions or fines for anyone caught drunk in public, which would require a law change. Public drunkenness was removed from the statute books in 1981.

The association also wants curbs on discounted alcohol at supermarkets and cut-price liquor stores to help stop young people bingeing at home.

Miss Tucker said her members had noticed a surge in Sale of Liquor Act enforcement by police, with more licensees being brought before the authority for alleged breaches. The authority suspended or cancelled 766 liquor licences or managers' certificates last year – more than two a day.

But prosecuting bar owners did not address the growing problem of off-premise binge drinking by young people, Miss Tucker said.

"They're coming in later, they're drunker and we're turning more away. Why aren't their parents responsible? Why are there 16-year-olds wandering around town drunk?"

Dermot Murphy, owner of The Establishment, said most Courtenay Place bar operators were serious about host responsibility. They could not afford to serve drunk punters.

"This is not a game to us bar owners, it's our livelihoods. Maybe we need to put responsibility equally back on patrons instead of just the bar owner. If actions have no consequences for the person becoming intoxicated, how can we expect them to behave responsibly?"

The Law Commission considered whether to introduce a new criminal offence of public drunkenness during its review of liquor laws in 2010.

However, the proposal was dumped after police advised it was unworkable, a spokeswoman said.

"Operationally they simply couldn't manage arresting everyone who was drunk in a public place."

A senior Wellington police officer told The Dominion Post gauging whether someone was intoxicated was difficult and subjective, and complicated by the use of recreational drugs.

A police submission to the Law Commission review warned that a return to the offence of public drunkenness would cause a spike in complaints, many during peak offending times. It would also clog the criminal justice system, consuming considerable court and police resources.

Countdown supermarkets spokesman Luke Schepen said the company promoted responsible consumption of beer and wine.

"Other licensees also have a role to play."

The Dominion Post