OPINION: The sheer size of the Law Commission report on alcohol, and the 2939 submissions that it received, reflect both the review's broad terms of reference and public concern at the impact of liquor liberalisation.
These changes increased the availability of alcohol without promoting a balancing sense of responsibility to prevent the misuse, notably through binge drinking, of a drug which causes great social harm. It is time, as the commission argues, to consider sweeping alcohol reforms.
There will be support for raising the purchase age to 20 years at all venues selling alcohol, because the experiment of lowering the age a decade ago has been a costly failure.
As critics feared, the age when teenagers begin drinking has percolated down, with many as young as 14 years heavily imbibing, and there is growing evidence of the harm alcohol does to developing brains.
Raising the age should make it harder for under-age drinkers to buy alcohol and less likely for older friends or relatives to purchase it for those as young as 14. The medical evidence also outweighs complaints from older teenagers that it is unfair to raise the liquor purchase age when they can drive or marry at a younger age.
Although alcohol-fuelled violence is not confined to younger people, police statistics show this is a particular problem with those in their late teens, meaning that a law change makes this a preventable problem.
While much attention will centre on the purchase age and the proposed increase in the alcohol excise tax, even though the latter is unlikely to be implemented, the commission's recommendations should be regarded as a coherent package, with the focus on moderation and responsibility.
New legal provisions would restrict who could supply alcohol to minors and make parents or other adults doing so responsible for supervising its consumption.
Local communities would be given greater influence over the number and location of liquor outlets, addressing the concerns in many centres over the proliferation of them.
To encourage moderation at a time when alcohol has become increasingly commercialised and cheap, advertising encouraging the excessive consumption of alcohol would be banned. Over time the commission believes there should be strict controls over all advertising and a ban on liquor sponsorship. This would be contentious but it should be recalled that the ban on tobacco sponsorship caused ructions initially but is now accepted.
Also worth debate is the suggestion of a civil cost recovery regime for those picked up by the police when intoxicated, to sheet home personal responsibility for drunken behaviour.
Several of the commission's proposals, such as earlier closing hours, might prove controversial. In reality, however, those New Zealanders who drink responsibly would be little affected by the report's overall recommendations.
The commission's proposal to change the name of the sale of liquor legislation to the Alcohol Harm Reduction Act is a sound move. This would emphasise that alcohol is different to most other products and that, while numerous New Zealanders do enjoy it in moderation, too many of all ages are part of a harmful binge culture which must change.
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