7 September, 2012
‘The Alcohol Law Reforms – the changes and the reasons behind them’
I am delighted to be able to speak to you today about the pending alcohol law changes contained in the Alcohol Reform Bill, currently wending its way through Parliament.
It is worth recalling that these changes arise out of a comprehensive review of alcohol and its place in New Zealand society conducted by the New Zealand Law Commission, which reported to the Government back in 2006.
The Alcohol Reform Bill is the Government’s formal response to the Law Commission’s report, and replaces the current Sale of Liquor Act 1989 in what promises to be the most major shake-up of our liquor laws in a generation.
When Liz invited to me to speak here today she noted Lion strongly advocates “that compliance with sale and supply laws and best practice in the responsible service of alcohol are intrinsic to operating an efficient and effective hospitality business”.
Then she asked me to outline Government’s perspective on minimising alcohol harm in the context of encouraging a vibrant and economically sustainable hospitality sector.
Both of those statements represent a position of a responsible partnership between those in the alcohol hospitality sector and the public - between reducing harm from alcohol while maintaining viable businesses and jobs.
As someone who has had a long association, now dating back nearly 35 years, with your industry and with the alcohol and drug field generally, I applaud both that statement and the recognition of reasonable partnership that it implies.
Partnership and responsibility are essentially what the Alcohol Reform Bill is about.
And beyond legislation; beyond regulation, it will be partnership and responsibility that need to be present to really make things work.
There must be goodwill and an honest and real intent to make a difference and to meet the challenges we face as a society with alcohol.
The alcohol and hospitality sectors can in no sense stand apart from that.
The Alcohol Reform Bill, then, represents a balanced approach that aims to support the safe and responsible sale, supply and consumption of alcohol.
We must never forget that for many, many New Zealanders alcohol is a pleasant social lubricant that is enjoyed in many settings without any hint of problems or misuse, but there are those for whom alcohol is anything but a positive experience.
I have to say that is my starting position when approaching the place of alcohol in our society, and I make no apologies for that.
It is too easy to fall in with extremists on either side of any argument but experience has taught me that keeping company with extremists of any description is as unwise as their solutions are unpalatable.
Let me repeat – most New Zealanders enjoy alcohol responsibly and appropriately as a social lubricant and do not have and will never have a problem with it.
It is therefore – as far as I am concerned – totally unreasonable that they should be punished, prohibited or unreasonably restricted in their access to and use of alcohol to address the very real problems of a very real minority.
Yes, we need to address these issues in our society, but we need to do so in a balanced way that does not impinge unreasonably upon the vast majority of New Zealanders who quietly and healthily enjoy a drink or two.
Alcohol policy therefore has to be a careful balance between respecting the rights of the overwhelming majority for whom alcohol will never be an issue, and addressing the circumstances which led to alcohol misuse by a minority.
Many New Zealanders are concerned by the misuse of alcohol in our society and the damage they see it causing.
That is not to say that they respond at all positively to the neo-prohibitionism now being demonstrated by some professional zealots, but rather that they are looking for genuine solutions that will work, ahead of the feel-good, ideological sloganeering they have been subject to for too long.
It goes without saying that the Government is seriously concerned by the major contribution of problem drinking to crime, public disorder and health problems in our communities, and accepts its responsibilities in this regard.
We see this Bill as the most serious and comprehensive attempt in more than 20 years to make fundamental changes to how, when and where New Zealanders drink.
But it will take individuals, industry and communities working together, not the pious hectoring of wowser intellectuals to make a real difference to the issue of problem drinking in our country.
Most of you will have a pretty good idea about what is proposed in the Bill.
However, it is a large piece of legislation and has undergone a number of changes since its introduction to Parliament – some of them as recently as late last month.
So let me outline the Bill’s main proposals.
New restrictions are proposed on the availability of alcohol.
For a start, dairies and convenience stores will no longer be able to sell alcohol.
Grocery stores will still be eligible for liquor licences, but the term ‘grocery store’ will be limited to premises that sell a wide range of food products and other household items, where the principal business is the sale of food products other than convenience foods.
Supermarkets and grocery stores will be restricted to displaying alcohol in a single area – and not at the check-out or at the entrance to the store.
The argument here is that a single area restriction will reduce exposure to alcohol, which has been associated with increased consumption and related harm among young people.
The Bill sets default maximum trading hours of 8am to 4am for on-licences and club licences and 7am to 11pm for off licences.
Overall, the Government believes the proposed trading hours reflect a balance between reducing alcohol-related harm and the impacts on licensees and responsible drinkers.
All these changes are designed to remove the opportunities many young people have had to obtain alcohol cheaply and constantly and almost right around the clock.
The Bill also aims to empower local communities to determine where and how alcohol is sold – and it introduces a risk-based licence fee regime.
Local authorities will be able to establish local alcohol policies and expand licensing criteria.
These may include restricting or extending maximum trading hours, specifying the location of outlets and imposing one-way doors.
If communities choose not to establish a Local Alcohol Policy, then the national framework will apply.
The risk-based licence fee regime is intended to reflect risk factors such as the type and capacity of the venue, trading hours and previous conduct of the licensee.
Its objectives are to recover the costs of regulating the licensing industry as far as possible and to incentivise licensees to adjust their practices to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related harm.
Personal and parental responsibility
The Bill proposes new requirements for alcohol to be supplied responsibly to young people.
Many parents have for too long felt a degree of impotence when it comes to moderating the way in which their young ones deal with alcohol outside the family home.
Parental consent will now be required before alcohol can be supplied to young people and their drinking will require adult supervision.
This will mean the good parenting of responsible adults cannot be so easily undone by the irresponsible actions of some other parents.
Police will also have a greater ability to intervene in unsupervised or poorly supervised parties, such as after-ball functions.
The Government recently proposed new amendments to the Bill to improve its workability and effectiveness – and to address issues that were raised in the consultation process.
For example, changes have been made to address concerns around the increase in the last few years of the alcohol content in ready-to-drink beverages – RTDs.
The Bill now includes a new regulation-making power that enables a maximum alcohol content and number of standard drinks per container for RTDs sold from licensed premises, which can be used if the Government considers it necessary.
I should acknowledge here that the industry has responded recently to these proposals by announcing it is developing a code to voluntarily reduce alcohol levels in RTDs.
The Government is still awaiting details of the proposals, but I welcome the industry response as a positive development.
Cynics are already saying it is the Government letting the industry off the hook with this move.
Make no mistake – you need to prove them wrong.
We are putting a degree of trust in you to address issues properly and, to be blunt, we would not welcome the criticism that would come our way should that trust prove misplaced.
I have no doubt that you as an industry are aware of that.
In the first instance, it is up to you, the industry, to give your critics pause for thought with integrity rather than opportunism in the self-regulatory codes that you will put in place around RTDs.
I have said that the bill before Parliament now is a generational change in our treatment of alcohol as a society.
What society is rightfully demanding of the alcohol and hospitality industry is that it rises above opportunism and the pursuit of the next fast buck.
Some of the criticism that you have received in the past is not entirely unmerited.
The game must be lifted.
The Bill as a whole is expected to be passed by the end of this year, with some provisions coming into effect after six months and the majority after 12 months.
This is to provide enough time to set up new licensing and enforcement systems, and to give industry time to adapt to the changes.
The Ministry of Justice is leading a plan to ensure the changes are implemented efficiently and communicated to key stakeholders.
There are a number of other measures the Government is investigating to see if they will reduce harm:
Last month the Opposition proposed an amendment to the Bill to provide the Government with powers to set a minimum price for a standard measure of alcohol.
I stated at the time that I was opposed to the amendment on the basis that I consider it to be elitist, as it will disproportionately affect those who cannot afford more expensive products and not affect others at all.
I am also yet to see any convincing evidence that it will work by curbing New Zealand’s so-called binge drinking culture.
What is required is a careful consideration on whether a pricing scheme is workable.
That is why the Government has asked the Ministry of Justice to investigate the impact and effectiveness of a minimum price regime.
Expert review of advertising
Another issue that requires careful consideration is the impact of advertising on people’s drinking.
The Government has agreed to establish an expert forum to consider the effectiveness of further restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship to reduce alcohol-related harm.
This is a joint project between the Ministries of Justice and Health.
The Ministry of Health is in the process of identifying forum members and drafting a terms of reference.
The expert forum will be set up after the Alcohol Reform Bill is passed.
It will invite submissions from experts and from other interested parties and will report back to the Government within one year.
If accepted by the Government, there will be a further process of consultation undertaken by a parliamentary select committee as part of the legislative process.
There are also other initiatives the Government is progressing directly, or supporting, to prevent alcohol-related harm.
For example, the Government has recently committed $10 million each year, taken from alcohol excise revenue, towards assessment and interventions for alcohol and other drugs.
These include screening for alcohol problems and brief interventions; nationally consistent youth treatment services; community based treatment for offenders with alcohol or drug problems; and a pilot drug court for adult offenders in Auckland.
I would like to acknowledge the role of ALAC here too, which is now part of the new Health Promotion Agency.
Since 1976, ALAC has been providing guidance and direction to the hospitality sector on safer drinking environments and improved host responsibility.
ALAC is also working to assist and educate industry and local authorities on what the new legislation will mean – and how it will work – in practice.
National Drug Policy review
The Ministry of Health has begun a review of the National Drug Policy 2007 – 2012.
As the title suggests, the policy expires this year and I see it as an excellent opportunity to review its effectiveness.
The National Drug Policy provides the basis for coordinated policy development and action to address drug issues in New Zealand.
The key principle of the policy is harm minimisation and co-ordinated approaches to control supply, reduce demand and provide treatment to those with drug-related problems.
I should point out here that ‘drugs’ in the National Drug Policy is used in the wider sense of the term and includes alcohol, tobacco, illegal and emerging drugs, and other substances with legitimate uses which are sometimes diverted for illicit purposes.
The Ministry of Health will be working in conjunction with a number of other government agencies on the review.
The objective is to ensure the new policy is fit for purpose, based on good evidence, cost effective, and allocates resources where they will achieve the best results.
The Ministry of Health plans to consult on a draft policy by March 2013 and for a new National Drug Policy to be in place later in the year.
Finally, I would like to return to the issue of partnership.
While the current Bill represents the most comprehensive legislative attempt since the passing of the Sale of Liquor Act in 1989 to curb alcohol-related harm, it is indeed only legislation and will not alone be enough to change the problems associated with New Zealand’s drinking culture.
It is how we all respond to the new legislation that is most important.
Real change will come with everyone playing a part: from Parliament, local government, Police, the alcohol and hospitality industries, communities, parents and individuals.
And a culture change can be achieved in relation to alcohol-associated activity.
We only need to look at the change over the last 10 to 15 years in public attitudes to drink driving - to a point now when it is considered to be entirely unacceptable.
So I hope that we all see this is a unique opportunity to tackle problem drinking and that if enough people act responsibly and appreciate what we are all trying to achieve that long term change will follow.