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Date published: 30th April 2005

New Zealand has always prided itself on punching above its weight. Our sporting heroes succeed despite limited resources and the small population, our economy continues to surpass many other comparable nations, and New Zealanders are in demand throughout the world for their can-do attitude and work ethic.

Yet we quickly forget that we are also among world leaders in many negative social indicators, such as domestic violence, drink-drive deaths and youth suicide.

It does not take too much scratching beneath the surface to identify a glaring common factor - alcohol.

Does New Zealand have a drinking problem? You bet.

We cannot think of these major social problems in isolation, for they are not a new phenomenon brought about solely by the lowering of the drinking age in 1999 - a change many blame for the disturbing images of street violence and wasted youth that confront us more and more.

Rather, the lowering of the drinking age was one of many measures that have liberalised the law over the past 15 years. In 1989, the Sale of Liquor Act revolutionised the alcohol industry. The law no longer had a say in the hours of trading, a move as far away from the days of the 6 o'clock swill as possible.

Instead, opening hours were set licence by licence. Bars could open 24 hours and supermarkets could sell wine. As a result, liquor licences doubled in the 1990s.

In 1992 a deal was brokered to broadcast liquor advertisements after 9pm, in return for limited free advertising for moderate-drinking and drink-driving campaigns by the Alcohol Advisory Council and the Land Transport Safety Authority.

Within a year, control over advertising was passed from the Broadcasting Standards Authority, a Government body, to the Advertising Standards Authority, a body dominated by industry and advertising interests, with obvious conflicts of interest between social responsibility and commercial imperatives.

In the mid-1990s, cafes began to seek licences, coinciding with major growth in the market for alcopops - brightly coloured, sweet-flavoured and sophisticatedly marketed drinks with the young (female) drinker in mind.

Then came the 1999 Sale of Liquor Amendment Act. In a conscience vote, Parliament reduced the age of purchase from 20 to 18, backed by strong rhetoric that a vigorously enforced age limit was better than the confusing situation where exemptions were allowed for dining, or drinking with parents and spouses.

Supermarkets could now sell beer, seven-day trading was granted for all taverns and off-licences (not just restaurants and membership-based clubs), and uncontested licence renewals were no longer decided by the Liquor Licensing Authority.

Combine these with factors such as our work-hard, play-hard attitude and a booming economy and there was a recipe for disaster.

Now New Zealand must decide what to do with the mess this liberalisation has created.

This week, the Drug Foundation is bringing together representatives from all the parties in Parliament, international experts and senior health policy advisers to consider a realistic, practical and effective policy on liquor.

A package of measures is the best way to address the impact of problem drinking. Education and public awareness campaigns, by themselves, stand little chance of success without other moves that are evidence-based and proven to work.

The Drug Foundation wants Parliament to adopt an eight-point plan to tackle the serious harm caused by liquor.

First, the excise tax must be increased to realistically reflect the huge social cost brought about by the misuse of liquor. It has been proved that raising the price affects consumption, especially among more price-sensitive groups such as young people and heavy drinkers.

There can be no doubt about the effects of price rises on tobacco use.

The age at which people can buy liquor must be returned to 20.

Far too many 15 and 16-year-olds are drinking their way to serious harm from liquor supplied by older siblings and friends who bought it legally, and who do not understand the danger in which they are placing their younger friends.

In 2001 a positive trend of fewer 15 to 19-year-old drunk-drivers was reversed.

The Sale of Liquor Act must be strengthened to require all licensees to seek ID from customers who look under 25.

Under the law there is no legal requirement, and surveys repeatedly show that age verification is not being sought often enough.

There must also be clarification about people over 18 supplying liquor to underage drinkers, except parents or guardians. Police are hamstrung by the need to prove intent and by existing exemptions for private social gatherings.

Stronger enforcement of the act is essential.

For it to be properly monitored and enforced, increased resources are needed. Authorities must commit to full use of existing sanctions, and adults (except parents) who supply liquor to minors must be prosecuted. An increase in the excise tax would be an appropriate source of resources.

The broadcasting of liquor advertisements must stop. A huge body of research proves that advertising influences the later drinking behaviour of young people. It is no coincidence that advertisers link liquor to attractive young-adult lifestyles and aspirations of fun and partying.

Through the Advertising Standards Authority, advertisers have allowed themselves to show liquor advertisements from 8.30pm, despite evidence that a quarter of all 10 to 17-year-olds are watching television at that time.

Communities need to have a genuine say about community problems. They need to have a voice over where pubs, clubs and liquor stores are located, and be able to halt a concentration of these in their neighbourhoods.

Also, people treating liquor problems need more resources. Nationwide, there are simply not enough beds or services to help people with severe alcohol and drug dependence problems and our mental health sector is suffering as a result. This is particularly important for young people.

And there must be no more conscience votes in Parliament on liquor. In this election year, all political parties must develop strong public-health policies on liquor. Alcohol is no longer the moral issue that was fought out between the temperance movement and the liquor trade. Now, dealing with the consequences of misuse and minimising the harm this creates is an important public health issue.

We cannot afford to have policy decided by MPs enamoured by a corporate box at the rugby, with plenty of the sponsor's product on tap.

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