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While the Government is proposing to adopt, in part or whole, the majority of the Law Commission’s 153 recommendations for alcohol law reform, among those that it has rejected are some of the most effective policy levers to reduce alcohol-related harms.

The 153 recommendations were designed to work together as a mutually reinforcing package. By “cherry picking the more politically palatable elements” – as commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer warned it not to do - the Government has considerably watered down that package.

Despite admitting that raising excise tax is an effective way to reduce alcohol-related harms, the Government’s inaction on pricing reflects its unwillingness to risk alienating voters already feeling the pinch ahead of rises in GST and interest rates.

While fear of losing votes is understandably at the forefront of all politicians’ minds, we should be asking why the Government has not moved further towards restricting alcohol advertising. This is not about losing votes or the dread of being tarred with the “nanny stateism” brush.

Surely, most New Zealanders wouldn’t care all that much if the ubiquitous Tui billboards no longer dotted our urban and rural landscapes? (We must be a sad lot if that’s the only source of humour in our lives).

The majority of us would probably care even less if the more insidious forms of marketing that specifically target youth using social media such as Facebook or viral text messaging were banned. Many adults don’t even know these types of promotions exist, so they are hardly likely to kick up a stink if they were restricted. Importantly, it would have absolutely no bearing on the ability of those who enjoy a drink to continue to do so.

When questioned about the Government’s conspicuous failure to address alcohol marketing, Justice Minister Simon Power pointed to the decision to adopt stage one of the three stages recommended by the Law Commission to bring alcohol marketing under greater regulation.

This is a disingenuous sidestep. All this would really do is extend to off-licenses the existing offence for an on-license to promote any event or activity with the intention of encouraging excessive consumption.

It will do absolutely nothing to impact on TV, radio, internet or billboard advertising that currently saturates our environment on a 24/7 basis. It also completely fails to address alcohol-sponsorship of sporting or cultural events across New Zealand, a widespread practice that embeds images and messages about alcohol into youth culture.

The Government has rejected stages two and three of the Law Commissions’ recommendations which encompass the critical steps necessary for meaningful restrictions around alcohol marketing. The ultimate aim, as envisaged by the Commission, is a situation where no alcohol advertising is permitted in any media, other than that which communicates objective product information, and an end to alcohol-related sponsorship of sporting and cultural events.

As with the debate over lowering blood alcohol levels for drink driving, the Government’s call for more research on marketing is another cop-out. There is absolutely no doubt that the pervasive marketing which so brazenly associates booze with social, sporting and sexual success is fuelling our binge drinking culture. Tightening controls on alcohol promotion really is a no-brainer if we are serious in tackling alcohol-related harms.

The evidence linking alcohol advertising and its influence on young people is now compelling. The World Health Organisation has cited high quality research showing that the promotion of alcohol leads to the early onset of drinking, and heavier drinking by young people who already drink. Recent research has also highlighted the links between the sponsorship of sportspeople and hazardous drinking.

The existing practice of relying on voluntary self-regulation of alcohol advertising is not working. In its final report to the Government, Sir Geoffrey and his team concluded that, “there is a strong argument that a self-regulatory body for alcohol advertising is inappropriate”. Placing external controls over the industry’s ability to advertise should be high on the policy agenda, especially given that the Government cites youth as their primary focus in these reforms.

While the Government may lack the courage to raise excise tax one year out from a general election, there is widespread public support for tackling our binge drinking culture. Specifically, there is broad support for greater controls on advertising. In total, 86% of 2281 public submissions to the Law Commission on this area supported banning or restricting all advertising of all alcohol in all media.

Public opposition is clearly not an issue when it comes to restricting alcohol advertising. Other factors probably are. How else are we to account for the lack of meaningful action on this front? The take home message – “Our Government puts the health and well-being of ordinary Kiwis above all else” – yeah right.

NZ Drug Foundation opinion piece featured in the Dominion Post

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