Bar kingpin backs minimum booze prices

MATT BOWEN
Last updated 05:00 20/08/2014

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Justice Minister Judith Collins didn't touch minimum alcohol pricing due to political self-interest, according to central Hamilton's major bar and restaurant player.

The Lawrenson Group and its chief executive, John Lawrenson, own the hottest nightclubs in the busiest part of town, including Bar 101, The Hood and The Outback.

Young people flock here every Saturday, loaded, for a good time.

"I will never understand the hypocrisy of the amount of pressure that goes on bars and restaurants over selling one drink for $5 when you can sell 12 drinks for $12 in a supermarket," Lawrenson says on a quiet afternoon at his Monteiths bar, Keystone, in Victoria St.

"That's completely illogical to me. Funnily enough, Labour, as part of their campaign last election, campaigned on a minimum pricing and I agree with it. If you want people to drink less, put the price up.

"They put taxes on cigarettes to put the price up every year because there's a direct correlation between the price of cigarettes and reduction in consumption, but they don't take the same approach with alcohol - that's ridiculous.

"Why force the price of cigarettes up to try to reduce consumption and then not do the same thing to alcohol? But the problem is 20 per cent of the population smokes and 80 per cent of the population drinks and it's an election loser."

The Law Commission, in its 500-page report Alcohol In Our Lives: Curbing the Harm, recommended the government raise excise tax by 50 per cent, which would increase the price of alcohol by about an average of 10 per cent. It said the move would have the greatest price impact on cheap alcohol products, that heavy and young drinkers prefer.

"Other things being equal, the price increase would be expected to reduce overall consumption by approximately 5 per cent, and possibly more in the longer term."

A conservative estimate put the net benefit to New Zealand at a minimum of $72 million annually, via alcohol-related health harms and healthcare costs.

The commission also recommended investigating a minimum pricing scheme which the Justice Ministry undertook.

In April, Collins said the Government wouldn't introduce minimum pricing on alcohol because it would "hit moderate drinkers in the pocket when there is no compelling evidence that increasing the price of alcohol is the correct approach".

The Government instead opted to wait for the alcohol reforms to bed in and to assess their impacts, including the local alcohol policies which are likely to take up to two years to come into full effect. LAPs are under appeal by the liquor lobby.

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Lawrenson says they are "incredibly powerful", particularly now supermarket chain owners Foodstuffs and Progressive are going in to bat for booze. His group also submitted on the LAP in favour of the status quo.

Lawrenson argues that earlier closing times will move heavy drinkers to the suburbs and that a one-way door policy will do nothing but create tension.

If he had absolute power, he'd take off-licences out of the suburbs "because they pop up in all of the worst places", and introduce minimum pricing.

People who have alcohol problems or want to get as drunk as possible, they don't care what it tastes like, he says.

"People that abuse alcohol, people that are poor that want bang for buck, they see a drink as an alcohol delivery device. So if that means they go and buy a 3-litre cask wine for $18 from the supermarket and they know that's going to get them 30 standard drinks, 60c a standard drink, that's them . . ."

All he can do, he says, is create a culture within his bars that intoxication will not be tolerated both at the door and inside.

He works closely with police in that area, he says, and to date has had one warning for a 45-year-old English rugby supporter at The Helm who police deemed was too pissed.

Not much will change on the alcohol front, he says.

"So I know every Saturday night 3000 people will descend on Hamilton intoxicated and I basically have to filter out the ones that are too drunk that come to the venue."

The signs are: inability to stand, strong alcohol smell, swaying and slurred speech. Girls in particular are "good at stumbling around like Bambi on ice" then 50 metres short of the bar, acting sober.

"At a bar like The Outback we work on the understanding of 1.2 drinks per customer. During things like O-Week, when it's entirely students, it's more like one drink per customer."

Why?

"Because they got drunk at home. The toughest time of the night for us is between 12 and 1am. A bar like The Outback can legally hold 1380 people and on an average Saturday night we'll take 1100 to 1200 people through the door. I would back my doormen to filter out most of the intox. We confiscate a huge amount of IDs every weekend but we're fallible."

They also ban drunks by scrawling a big cross on their forearm in black vivid. Other bars recognise the sign. Lawrenson thinks Hamilton's drinking culture is on par with other major cities and he disagrees with anecdotal comments that we're excessive and irresponsible drinkers. It's humans who don't drink responsibly, he says.

In his opinion, the scene today is better than it was four years ago. "As [police] have clamped down on negative behaviour it has taught people that want to behave negatively, don't come to town in Hamilton because you'll be locked up."

"Prohibition doesn't work. You can't blame anyone. Everyone's equally to blame and not to blame - the supermarkets, the bar owners, the legislators, producers - we all have a part to play." matt.bowen@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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