Alcohol has always been a problem in New Zealand since the first Europeans arrived on its shores. Lawlessness and bad behavior in the early years of European settlement, often fueled by alcohol, was partially responsible for the development of Treaty of Waitangi. The only way for Britain to have legal jurisdiction over New Zealand, and so be able to enforce the peace, was to gain British sovereignty over the nation. It appears that even in those early days the main approach to dealing with excessive alcohol consumption was policing the effects rather than controlling the sales and supply.
Those who have suffered most from the effects of alcohol have been families and children. The temperance movement early last century attempted to ban alcohol altogether and did succeeded to bring about prohibition in different parts of the country(they needed a 3/5 majority vote). However the liquor industry has always been very profitable and there was a strong reaction to the growing strength of the temperance movement from the industry and New Zealand History Online describes the time well:
The trade fights back
Publicans, brewers, and spirit merchants were naturally horrified, and moved swiftly to protect their trade. They had a lot to lose if local prohibition spread. The liquor trade organised itself into the National Council of New Zealand. With the backing of many wealthy and prominent businesses, this organisation was generally better-resourced than the New Zealand Alliance.
The National Council spent lavishly on advertising, and used cartoons to portray temperance advocates as joyless puritans – 'wowsers' – who wished to choke all the pleasure out of life and trample on others' liberties. ‘Moderate’ leagues sprang up in many electorates, arguing that people in a free society should be able to choose to drink or not drink.
The liquor trade's lawyers also kept a close eye on the polls, and delivered long lists of electoral ‘irregularities' to the courts whenever no-license was voted in.
In many ways we are seeing a parallel in what is happening at present. There is a growing concern about the effects of alcohol in our communities and damning facts and statistics are readily available:
- Alcohol related harm has been estimated to cost the country over $5.3 billion a year or $14.5 million every day.
- We have seen an almost 10% increase in alcohol consumption over the last ten years.
- 25% of adult drinkers are binge drinkers.
- Half of drinkers under 25 years of age drink large quantities when they drink.
- 61% of adolescent students drink and 34% binge drink.
- Every year around 1000 people die from alcohol related causes.
- New Zealand has a high rate of drowning compared to other countries and 40% of our drownings are alcohol related.
- 44% of fire fatalities are related to alcohol.
- We have one of the worst levels of youth suicide in the world and 30% of these are attributed to alcohol.
- Between 20 and 30% of all injuries are due to alcohol consumption.
- 22% of ACC claims have alcohol has a contributing factor with these claims costing around $650 million each year.
- Between 2002 and 2006 there were 5,413 young people hospitalized because of alcohol.
- For every 100 alcohol or drug impaired drivers killed in motor accidents 54 of their passengers died and 42 sober road users.
- The 18-29 year age group has the highest rates of alcohol related mortality.
- A recent survey found that 16.6% of 18-24 year olds had been physically assaulted by someone who had been drinking in the previous 12 months and 12% had been sexually harassed.
- In 2008 there had been 20,000 violent offenses caused by offenders under the influence of alcohol.
- A study of university students on sexual behaviour found that 25% had been involved in risky sexual behaviour because of alcohol, 15% of males and 11% of females reported having unprotected sex and 19% of males and 16% of females reported having sex that they later regretted.
- 40% of births are unplanned, our teenage pregnancy rate is one of the worst in the OECD and there is a growing binge drinking culture amongst our teenage girls. It has been estimated that this culture is now causing around 3,000 children with foetal alcohol syndrome being born each year in NZ.
Prof. Doug Sellman has been a particularly strong voice regarding the impacts of alcohol and he has advocated for changes to be made to reduce consumption. As happened 100 years ago he has been subjected to some strong attacks from the the industry and accusations of being a wowser, trying to impinge on individual rights and promoting the nanny state. While Prof. Sellman has always claimed the facts and science should dominate the debate the attacks he has been subjected to have been largely ideological and emotive.
The Law Commission took a very considered approach to manage the problems of alcohol and their 2010 recommendations largely supported Prof. Sellman's views:
- Raising the price of alcohol by an average of 10% through excise tax increases.
- Regulating irresponsible promotions that encourage the excessive consumption, or purchase, of alcohol.
- Returning the minimum purchase age to 20.
- Strenthening the rights and responsibilities of parents for the supply of alcohol to minors.
- Introducing maximum closing hours for both on and off-licences: (4am and 10pm respectively).
- Increasing the ability of local people to influence how and where alcohol is sold in their communities.
- Regulate alcohol advertising and sponsorship.
- Increasing personal responsibility for unacceptable or harmful behaviors induced by alcohol, including a civil cost recovery regime for those picked up by the police when grossly intoxicated.
It is interesting that the final bill has largely watered down the recommendations to almost a fraction of what would be necessary to make a real difference, disregarding the fact there is strong community support for tougher alcohol laws:
- There will be no increase in excise tax (despite its effectiveness in reducing tobacco consumption).
- The only advertising and promotions that will be restricted are at the point of sale so television and sponsorship will largely continue as it is.
- The minimum age of purchasing is remaining the same (this is was actually a conscience vote across all parties).
- Changing the closing hours to only 4am and 7am, which means there would be only 3 hours in the early morning when alcohol couldn't be purchased.
- Communities will have more say in the way alcohol sales occur in their communities but when the collective strength of the liquor industry and supermarkets throw their weight and considerable finances around most communities will struggle to have their views accepted.
- Judith Colins has backed down on an attempt to reduce the alcohol content in RTDs.
Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party have worthwhile Supplementary Order Papers (SOPs) to address the inadequacies of the bill and bring back the intent of the Law Commission's recommendations. However, despite the efforts of the opposition I see little changing the obvious influence of business interests over this National led Government. It appears that the industry will have its way again as it did 80-100 years ago.