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Where are we at with alcohol reform?

1 May 2016
Rob Zorn
This article was published 8 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since the Sale and Supply of Alcohol 2012 Act was implemented in late 2013, so how are the changes bedding in? Are there signs of positive change to New Zealand’s worrying drinking culture, and what’s left to be done? Rob Zorn prepared this report.

We could, perhaps, start with a short history lesson – though most readers will be pretty familiar with how New Zealand has gotten itself into such a pickle and pickled state in terms of how we drink.

We’ve been liberalising legislation around alcohol for a century or more, but the most significant cause of our current woes is probably the Sale of Liquor Act 1989. Designed to transform New Zealand into a tourist mecca of good food, wine and beer, it more than doubled the number of retail outlets selling alcohol and allowed supermarkets to start selling beer and wine and for licensed premises virtually to be open all hours. We Kiwis took advantage of this as much as did the tourists.

Subsequent legislation lowered the drinking age to 18 and allowed alcohol advertising back onto television. Meanwhile, the industry has remained largely unregulated, and alcohol advertising is everywhere we look. The result has been more than 700,000 New Zealanders over 18 binge drinking and at least 120,000 New Zealanders with a clinically diagnosed alcohol problem. Something has gone terribly wrong.

In 2008, the government asked the Law Commission to review all aspects of the law concerning the sale and supply of alcohol. By 2010, the Commission had produced three reports containing a “mutually supportive” package of 153 recommendations to Parliament.

The government responded with the Alcohol Reform Bill, which adopted (in full or in part) 126 of the recommendations, and this Bill became the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act in 2012.

Critics of the legislation were outspoken, saying the government had ignored or watered down the most important recommendations (such as around age of purchase, advertising, price and availability). Some went so far as to say the government had left the teeth out of the Act in deference to the powerful alcohol industry. Others accused it of cowardice – a fear that there’d be a backlash of lost votes from ordinary New Zealanders who just wanted to enjoy a drink and felt they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of a drunken minority.

That the industry had been left largely untouched was one of the biggest sore points. It seemed bizarre, for example, that, despite widespread acknowledgement that young people were among the most hazardous of drinkers, licensed shelves were sagging with the weight of a plethora of alcopops with raunchy names and brightly coloured packaging. These were premixed alcoholic drinks aimed not at the discerning palate but at young males – and increasingly young females – whose palates seemed more preoccupied with preloading, getting prettily plastered at home before heading out to hit the clubs.

And competition for this young market has been fierce between the booze barons. Often, a bottle of alcohol costs significantly less than a bottle of milk or water, and the average youngster on the minimum wage can earn enough money to get truly trolleyed in much less than an hour.

Nevertheless, in a December 2013 media release, Justice Minister Judith Collins said the new law would provide a strong platform to help drive change in New Zealand’s drinking culture.

“For the first time in more than two decades the Government is acting to restrict, rather than relax, our drinking laws. These changes strike a sensible balance between curbing the harm alcohol abuse can cause, without penalising responsible drinkers,” she said.

We’re now two or three years down the road from the implementation of the Act, and it’s a good time to ask, just how far have we come? Was Ms Collins right and has there been any change in our drinking culture?

Readers of the news might have some doubts. There are still endless stories about alcohol-fuelled student carnage, drunk and abusive patients and their mates at hospital emergency departments, sexual and domestic violence and horrific drink-driving incidences. There remain at least 600 Kiwi kids born every year with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and that’s being conservative. The number could be as high as 3,000.

According to Statistics New Zealand alcohol available for consumption was the lowest it has been for 18 years at the close of 2015, but the facts that 8–9 litres of
pure alcohol are available for consumption per person per year and that New Zealand adults drink on average at least two standard drinks a day each suggest our society is still awash with the stuff.

There are still endless stories about alcohol-fuelled student carnage, drunk and abusive patients and their mates at hospital emergency departments, sexual and domestic violence and horrific drink-driving incidences.

But have there been any other promising signs besides the drop in alcohol available for consumption? Maybe.

The Ministry of Health’s New Zealand Health Survey 2014/15 indicates hazardous drinking rates for those aged 18–24 years are at 34 percent, a significant fall since 2006/07 when they were at 43 percent.

That may seem like good news, but unfortunately, it’s offset by accompanying data. Public health physician and epidemiologist Professor Jennie Connor from the Dunedin School of Medicine says claims about how good the news is overall have been exaggerated.

“There was a decline in the prevalence of hazardous drinking from the 2005/06 survey [18 percent] to the 2010/11 survey [14.9 percent], but in 2014/15, we’ve pretty much returned to 2006/07 levels at 17.7 percent. So if anything, the trend is heading back up,” she says.

graph of prevalence of hazardous drinking

“Between 2006 and 2015, the distribution of hazardous drinkers by
age has changed a little, having gone down for the youngest group (aged 15–24) but up significantly for those aged 45–54 [up from 12 percent in 2006/07 to 18 percent in 2014/05]. And we mustn’t forget that it is still the 18–24-year-olds who have the highest rates of hazardous drinking and are also at greater risk of harm because of their age.

“It’s still too early to know what is happening, but there may be a bulge of ageing heavy drinkers who are moving through the system.”

Alcohol Healthwatch Director Rebecca Williams says, even if there have been promising falls in hazardous drinking rates amongst young people, we mustn’t overlook the fact that all the rates remain alarmingly high.

“We still have a culture of drinking to intoxication that we haven’t come anywhere near to nailing, so we’re not able to be complacent about any improvements that have been made,” she says.

Williams has an interesting theory about why hazardous drinking rates may be declining for young people and increasing for older people.

“The 45–54-year-olds are the ones who were young when we liberalised our alcohol laws and policies 20 or so years ago, so they’re the ones whose early drinking experiences were formed in that more liberal environment, and more of this age group have continued their heavy drinking throughout their lives,” she says.

“But young people today have seen some pretty awful things in the media, like violence and deaths among school kids and that may have turned many of them off, and they’ve been able to say, ‘That’s not for me’.”

It’s a good theory, and it makes a lot of sense, except for the fact that it’s not just happening in New Zealand.

Simon Denny, a paediatrician who works clinically with teenagers in South Auckland, has been part of the Adolescent Health Research Group (University of Auckland)’s Youth 2000 Survey since its inception in 2001. The survey looks at all sorts of health matters relating to secondary school students, and with about 10,000 youth respondents involved each time, Denny says its provides one of the best datasets we have available for young people’s health in New Zealand.

The latest Youth 2000 Report (2012) shows remarkable drops in number and frequency in terms of secondary students drinking in New Zealand.

In 2001, for example, roughly 17 percent of respondents said they drank weekly, and around 40 percent admitted to having binge drunk in the last four weeks. In 2012, those figures had fallen to 8.3 percent and 22.6 percent respectively.

But Denny says the interesting thing is that this is actually a global phenomenon.

"It doesn’t appear to be that we’re just doing something right here in New Zealand. Just about every OECD country is seeing the same thing.”

He says there’s been a lot of debate about just why these global reductions are occurring, but no one really knows for sure. One contender could be the global financial crisis – especially as there was quite a tipping point around 2007 – but he says that’s more of an adult indicator and applies less to young people. 

His favourite theory is that it arises from greater use of the internet and social media because that’s something happening across all countries.

“Young people now are spending much more time on Facebook or Instagram, or they’re texting on their phones instead of going out and binge drinking. But they’re also more connected to information, so maybe they know more about the risks of alcohol than the previous generation did.”

Will this trend continue? Denny thinks it probably will for a little while before it plateaus off, but he doesn’t think it will bounce back up again.

“The social landscape for young people has really changed, and I think that’s permanent. It’s a different world, and going out to socialise just isn’t the norm any more like it was for us.”

Whether or not we’re just caught up in some global youth-focused zeitgeist, Acting General Manager of Policy, Research and Advice at the Health Promotion Agency (HPA) Cath Edmondson says we are starting to do some things right and that our own social media campaigns around alcohol like ‘Say Yeah, Nah’ have definitely had an effect on young people over 18. She points out that HPA’s ‘no more beersies’ phrase has even now entered the New Zealand lexicon.

“I think that’s really having an impact on older youth and adults, but when it comes to young people under 18, parents are understanding more about how alcohol affects their child’s brain development. Schools are looking at how to deal with alcohol and drug use in a more comprehensive way. There’s more help and support there for people, including youth, who are concerned about their drinking. So I think there is a range of things in place that we can look positively at, especially for the young.”

So is any of this attributable to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act?

Williams doesn’t think we can pin any of these particular improvements on the new legislation, but she does think the robust conversations that were happening around the Law Commission review were influential and that the global economic downturn would have had some impact. In other words, changes to thinking and attitudes were already starting to happen before the Act.

“However, I think one area the Act has meaningfully impacted on is the maximum default trading hours, bringing trading back to 4am. That had immediate benefits around things like violent assaults and offending, according the Police. It was quite strong and a really concrete point that contributed to some real change.”

She also agrees that the Act’s new infringement notices have been useful. These enable Police, for example, to deal swiftly with infringements at a liquor store or with a low-end drink-driving offence with a fine and then move on.

“The ability to respond quickly was something the sector really needed and found really enabling.”

On the other hand, Williams says it’s much less clear whether other aspects of the legislation are having any impact at all. And she’s talking about things like single areas for alcohol in supermarkets and especially councils’ local alcohol policies (LAPs).

“Very few LAPs have come through the process with any real teeth, and the majority of them, especially those that have any meaningful restrictions or controls, are still tied up in appeals, mostly by the industry.”

The HPA is a Crown agency that, under legislation, exists to give advice to government and other agencies, including advice around alcohol-related harm. Part
of its role is to work with Justice, Health, ACC, medical officers of health, the alcohol industry, licensees, licensing inspectors, local governments and communities to ensure implementation of the Act is happening effectively and that everyone understands their options and obligations under the new legislation.

It also conducts research on alcohol use, attitudes and behaviours and identifies areas of priority. It then develops strategies to address them. Managing alcohol in licensed premises and public areas was one of those identified priorities.

Young people now are spending much more time on Facebook or Instagram, or they’re texting on their phones instead of going out and binge drinking. But they’re also more connected to information, so maybe they know more about the risks of alcohol than the previous generation did.

Edmondson agrees that the implementation of LAPs has been a real challenge for everyone concerned but especially for communities.

“This local level involvement was the intent of the Act, and it’s been welcomed by communities because we didn’t have as much of that before, but it’s not easy. Because of the issues with LAPs, the alcohol licence application process has become the contested space.

“So we’re looking at how we can support those committees towards consistency of practice while maintaining that local-level decision making. We’ve been working with Local Government New Zealand on guidance and training for people working in the committee process, including the community, licensees and the regulatory agencies.

“There are some process issues, such as when a licence application has been lodged, how do people actually find out about that?

“Then there’s the collaboration between the regulatory agencies that the Act requires. That’s seen as a really good thing and is working in some areas, but for others, it’s more difficult. It’s almost like the positives are also the challenges.”

Williams says one of the biggest problems with the Act is its wording and cumbersome processes that make it incredibly hard for statutory agencies to ensure it achieves its purposes or for communities to engage with it.

“There are so many loopholes. I think there’s been only one prosecution to cancel a licence based on a three-strikes process. The fact that we have had to wait three years to catch a poorly performing licensee out three times before their licence can be cancelled demonstrates how poorly the legislation protects communities.”

She’s not alone in thinking the Act cumbersome. In its 2014 Annual Report, the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority (ARLA) called the Act “clumsily worded”, “unnecessarily confusing” and “in places virtually unintelligible”. In its 2015 Report, ARLA says, “Several issues requiring amendment were identified in the Authority’s last Report (these are yet
to be resolved).”

This is also a source of frustration for Williams, who thinks some problems with the Act have been clearly identified, but Parliament seems to prefer to tinker around with non-essentials.

“What Parliament has managed to give its attention to with the Act are things like freeing up trading around the Rugby World Cup, responding to industry concerns about where non- or low-alcohol products can be displayed in supermarkets and freeing up trading for RSAs on Anzac Day.

“I don’t begrudge the soldiers their tot of rum on Anzac morning, but meanwhile, communities can’t get the restricted hours or other protections they want. Even some MPs have commented on how ridiculous it’s been to have been concentrating on these sorts of things instead of a more strategic review to ensure the Act can deliver on its intents and purposes.”

It does seem that, when there’s anything meaty with regards to the Act r further alcohol law reform, Parliament has been slow to move if it has moved at all.

For example, to further reduce alcohol-related harm, the government established the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship in February 2014 to consider whether further restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship are needed.

The Forum’s report was released back in December 2014 and made 14 strong recommendations, including around banning alcohol sponsorship of sport, music and cultural events; reducing exposure of young people to alcohol advertising; and restricting the hours for alcohol advertising on broadcast media.

Absolutely nothing has been heard about this report since, and one might wonder why.

The most recent alcohol reform in New Zealand has been the reduction from 0.08 to 0.05 in blood alcohol limits for drivers, which came into force in December 2014. It’s a change that doesn’t just affect drinkers. It also affects the alcohol industry because it means responsible people will drink less when they’re out and have to drive, and at first, some will drink very little until they get more familiar with the law.

While Hospitality NZ has been critical of government agencies for pushing a ‘don’t drink at all when you’re driving’ message rather than one to ‘drink responsibly’, there has been barely any vocal opposition to the new limits by the industry. Nor should there have been. The evidence the reduction will save lives is pretty robust, and New Zealand was among the last states in the world to cling to such a high limit.

Some pubs and restaurants have complained of a significant loss of business or that they’ve had to close down because people are now drinking less, but there have also been some positive signs.

In February this year, Methven pub owner Trev den Baars told The Press that, while alcohol takings had definitely dwindled at the two rural pubs he owned, there had been renewed customer interest in food and in zero- or low-alcohol alternatives. This, he indicated, was providing revenue opportunities he was prepared to adapt to in order to stay afloat.

“The customers are having to change, so we’re also having to change the way we operate,” he said.

It could be the new drink-drive limits will encourage changing approaches by both customers and publicans to become more widespread. When the focus of a night out becomes more on food and socialising and less on the drinking itself, perhaps we’ll start to see some culture changes and a corresponding reduction in alcohol-related harm.

But den Baars also said that the “booze industry is really coming forward with some great drinks instead of your standard juices and soft drinks now”. This may also be a welcome sign that some within the industry are willing to change and work with a cultural move towards consuming less alcohol.

But the government needs to consult with the agencies, councils and communities and ask them what they need. These are the groups who know what the difficulties are with the Act. These are the people on the  coalface doing their darnedest to make this legislation work.

Rebecca Williams

Tuatara Brewing on the Kapiti Coast near Wellington is a good example.

“We’ve definitely noticed a shift in attitudes in favour of more responsible drinking over the last year or two,” says Tuatara Chief Executive Richard Shirtcliffe.

“Bar owners and managers are telling us there’s increasing demand for low- to mid-strength beer. So ‘sessionability’ is still important for those wanting to be responsible. People don’t want to just sit on one glass all night but nor do they wish to overconsume.”

Tuatara, famous for its wide range of quality craft beers, produced its Iti (te reo for ‘little’) variant two years ago – aimed deliberately at this new trend.

“We saw a need for a lower-alcohol craft beer that was still full of body and flavour, and at 3.3 percent, we think we’ve achieved this with Iti. It took a few batches before we got it right, but it’s since proved to be quite a star.”

Indeed, Iti is now Tuatara’s sixth-biggest seller. Last year, its sales grew 43 percent on the previous year, and Shirtcliffe says they’re continuing to climb.

Tuatara has also produced a small trial batch of a low-alcohol beer (2.5 percent) called Tu (te reo for ‘stand’). Shirtcliffe points out it’s very difficult to make a really good low-alcohol beer. They’re still experimenting so they can meet the market as demand for this sort of low-alcohol alternative continues to grow.

Meanwhile, Tuatara devotes much of its website towards explaining the flavours and food matches of each of its beers, and there’s a real emphasis on enjoying the experience of the beer itself and none at all on enjoying the experience of just having lots of beer.

This is perhaps the change of emphasis that New Zealand’s drinking culture needs, and its pleasing to hear Shirtcliffe point out that there’s been an increase of sales in low- to mid-alcohol beer in craft breweries across the board.

“Even the mainstream breweries
are doing it. Speights, Heineken and DB Export all have examples of this sort of product, indicating the consumer demand is really there.”

Of course, New Zealand’s problem drinkers probably aren’t drinking much Tuatara or many craft beers at all. But any culture change towards quality over quantity is to be encouraged, and little silver-plated bullets like this can only help.


So what else can we do, especially in terms of the Act that was supposed to be such a platform for change?

While some might want a return to the drawing board – throwing it out entirely
– most agree that’s not going to happen, even with a change of government.

Williams believes it’s now time to organise a ‘three-year-in’ review of the Act – not necessarily a full-blown public consultation, but a considered review to look at what changes could be made to make the Act more effective and enabling.

“I don’t think we need to start again. There’s too much potential in the Act, and its intent is still really strong. At its heart, its principles do reflect the intent of the Law Commission, and I think we can build on that,” she says.

“But the government needs to consult with the agencies, councils and communities and ask them what they need.

These are the groups who know what the difficulties are with the Act. These are the people on the coalface doing their darnedest to make this legislation work.”

Edmondson says we need to keep doing what we know is working and to do more of it.

“Obviously, we need to make sure the legislation is operating as effectively as possible, but we need to keep working on behaviour change, and that’s not just about legislation. We need to keep going with the social marketing campaigns and education programmes and make sure people have got help and support when they need it.

“And the industry has a part to play in increasing the production of low-alcohol products and being more proactive around host responsibility and management practices at events and at licensed premises.

“We need to work across all of these, not just the legislation, to continue to impact on alcohol-related harm.”

At just two and a half years, it probably is too early to see more concrete signs of change. After all, it has taken decades for us to get where we currently are in terms of our alcohol culture. The signs are both encouraging and discouraging, and only time will tell.

Hopefully we can achieve more than just waiting for that bulge of middle-aged problem drinkers to grow old and move on and for the younger social media savvy drinkers to further mature, prioritising good food, good company and just a few good drinks over quantity consumed.

Photo credit: The New Zealand Herald/newspix.co.nz




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