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The stakes are high across the board as a result of the Law Commission’s liquor review. For the producers and sellers of alcohol, there’s the pressing need to protect their bottom line; for society, there’s the urgent need to reverse an increasingly dangerous drinking culture; for politicians, there’s an important opportunity to step up and show leadership in a contentious and complex debate.
This review is a fantastic chance for New Zealand to advance towards better law and regulation over its most popular but damaging drug. Most of us agree the liberalisation of liquor laws over the last 20 years hasn’t quite worked out as planned. In fact, the architect of current laws, Sir Geoffrey Palmer (then Minister of Justice, now president of the Law Commission) said exactly that to the recent ALAC conference: “Things did not turn out quite the way we thought in 1989.”
Just as the designers of global prohibition didn’t anticipate the massive criminal black market, neither did the Laking Review reckon on the significant harms to young people and the widespread social costs that would result from the Sale of Liquor Act 1989. This does not excuse the additional liberalisation in 1999; the authors of those changes had clear evidence of the harm of a liberalised alcohol environment. And today, we have even better evidence about the harms from alcohol and the ways we can minimise them.
The Law Commission review provides a wonderful opportunity for the contest of ideas about the most effective solutions to fix our shameful drinking culture.
The industry (broadly defined) needs to end its mischief making; its commodity of trade is not an ordinary one and cannot be treated as such. Supermarkets cannot expect to be given the right to sell spirits. Producers must show greater responsibility about the types of products they make and how they are marketed. The hospitality sector needs to shut up about ‘nanny state interventionism’ and get on with demonstrating good hosting practice.
Public health advocates – who are confident about the evidence around effective law and regulation (and I count the Drug Foundation in this group) – have a responsibility to clearly articulate this to the community. Yes, we should raise awareness of the health and social harms from alcohol, but in a constructive not strident way.
It’s true that laws and regulations cannot, in themselves, change culture, but they can go a long way towards shaping attitudes and behaviours (witness the rising harms resulting from increased commercial liberalism). Changes proposed in the review will help fast-track cultural change, which is what has occurred with tobacco (remember when
you could smoke on planes?).
Ultimately, this review needs New Zealand communities to don the mantle for change – not industry and not the pointy heads. In the end, it’s the public’s voice the politicians will take most notice of.
NB Over 10 years the Drug Foundation has published 500 articles in the Matters of Substance magazine. Half of these stories are available here as webpages, and the rest are in PDF format only (download August 2009 copy 1.5 MB).
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