Liquor law changes on way to beef up community say

6:27 pm on 30 October 2022
Blurred image of shelves with alcoholic drinks in supermarket.

The balance neeeds to be tilted away from the alcohol industry and retailers, the government says. Photo: 123RF

The government wants to make it easier for communities to put in place rules around the sale of alcohol in their area.

The amendments to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 will remove the ability to appeal local alcohol policies (LAPs).

The current laws allow liquor stores and supermarkets to block local councils from limiting the sale of alcohol with the process costing millions in legal fees nationwide.

Kiri Allan

Kiri Allan Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Minister of Justice Kiri Allan said today the law wasn't working as intended, and that local communities should set their own rules.

"When the act was introduced by the National government, it aimed to ensure the safe and responsible sale and consumption of alcohol. But the act hasn't worked as intended, creating a system that leaves communities struggling and silenced in their fight against the powerful alcohol industry," Allan said.

Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have all faced lengthy and expensive legal opposition while trying to implement new alcohol policies.

The minister cited an example in Auckland where a provisional LAP has been in the appeal process for seven years, at a reported cost to the council of more than $1 million in legal fees. The matter is now before the Supreme Court, which has reserved its decision.

"There are similar stories in Wellington and Christchurch, where councils have abandoned their efforts to put harm reduction plans in place after facing expensive and lengthy legal opposition," she said.

"In total five councils, including the four largest authorities accounting for half of the total population, have halted or abandoned their efforts to implement LAPs."

Allan said she had met with members of some south Auckland communities and they had told her about their experiences "in battling against alcohol harm and attempting to reduce the ever-increasing availability of alcohol".

"It was distressing to see the community prevented from taking action by the deep pockets and legal manoeuvres of those who benefit from alcohol sales."

The government is also looking to amend rules around the public's ability to object to a new or renewed alcohol licence application and how objectors can make their case at a licensing hearing.

Community groups reported feeling "intimidated and harassed" while being cross-examined by lawyers at hearings, Allan said.

"It was always envisaged that people would have the opportunity to be heard when it comes to how alcohol is sold locally. I've heard loud and clear that this part of the act is not working."

A Bill proposing procedural changes to the alcohol licensing process will be introduced this year, with the aim of passing it into law by mid-next year.

"These amendments are just the first steps in fixing alcohol laws. The government will be doing future work to look at licensing structures and processes, marketing and sponsorship, pricing, and changes to ensure the law is responsive to new products and retail models."

Allan said the intention was to tilt the balance away from the alcohol industry towards giving community a greater voice and ensure more was done to counter the significant impact alcohol has on communities, whānau and the health system.

Two recent reports commissioned by the government listed alcohol as a significant health and justice issue.

"These reports and their recommendations will help shape decisions on our next steps," Allan said.

Changes will benefit lower socio-economic communities

Alcohol Healthwatch Executive Director Dr Nicki Jackson is encouraging Councils from around the Waikato to support the amendment to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act.

Dr Nicki Jackson Photo: LDR

A health action group said the government's move to close a legal loophole that advantages retailers will reduce harm in poorer communities.

Alcohol Healthwatch director Nicki Jackson said the changes will make a difference to those most targeted, which are often poorer communities.

"Reducing the availability and advertising of alcohol ... to reduce consumption in the population and to reduce harm.

"There are also exposures that are disproportinately in our poorest neighbourhoods that have more liquor outlets, have greater exposure to alcohol advertising. These are pro-equity measures."

She said the law change would make sure harm was reduced equitably.

Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul said the changes would provide better protection for vulnerable communities, which were already at risk of being saturated by liquor outlets.

Paul, a second-term councillor, said these businesses intentionally targeted more vulnerable, less resourced communities to make a profit.

Those communities with more resources could use their wealth and expertise to fight decisions intended to keep them out of those neighbourhoods.

More vulnerable suburbs were both more appealing to retailers of things like alcohol, vapes, pokies and short-term loans, and less able to fight decisions to allow them to set up shop in their neighbourhoods.

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