20 Mar 2014

Alcohol policies must change - Palmer

3:59 pm on 20 March 2014

Former Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer says an increase in the tax on alcohol would be an important step in changing New Zealand's binge drinking culture.

Sir Geoffrey told Alcohol Action New Zealand's annual conference in Wellington on Tuesday that big policy changes on alcohol are needed - even if they're not popular.

He told the conference that price is a huge factor governing alcohol consumption, and MPs need to be persuaded big policy changes are needed.

"I think the most important issue is price. I think the excise tax has to go up because research shows internationally and in New Zealand that that is the biggest and most effective weapon against alcohol abuse."

Sir Geoffrey says advertising, promotion and sponsorship of alcohol also needs to be addressed. He doesn't think the public is fully aware of all the problems excessive alcohol consumption causes.

"It's doing a terrific set of problems to law and order. Much of the crime is fuelled by excessive alcohol. It's doing a lot of harm to our health - it's carcinogenic and quite clearly so. And it's doing a lot of harm to accidents - the Accident Compensation Corporation has to pick up a lot of the costs of accidental injury."

Sir Geoffrey says many of those adverse effects are being blamed on the public, as opposed to the industry which has engendered them.

He said it was disappointing the Law Commission's recommendations on alcohol were ignored or watered down. They included a minimum price, changes to the advertising and marketing of alcohol and increasing the purchase age to 20.

Changes to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, including making bars close by 4am, came into effect on 18 December last year.

Police positive

Wellington police say they have noticed a positive difference in people's behaviour since alcohol serving times were changed.

District area commander Inspector Chris Scahill says anecdotally, staff say they are attending fewer incidents and are seeing a noticeable drop in the number of incidents around Courtenay Place.

Mr Scahill says changing alcohol availability is one of the biggest factors that can reduce alcohol-related harm.

The Hospitality Association, meanwhile, says it still expects a financial hit from bars having to close earlier.

President Adam Cunningham says it takes a while to accumulate information, so it is hard to say what the financial impacts have been for those venues closing two or three hours earlier.

However, he says there have been changes in the way staff are employed and there is a trend towards employing fewer people because of the reduced hours, particularly in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch.

An emergency medicine specialist says it is too early to say if new bar hours have been effective in reducing the harm from alcohol

Paul Quigley, a doctor at Wellington Hospital, says it can take years before the impacts of a social change policy show clear trends,

However, he says there may be a small improvement in the number of injured people coming to the hospital in the early hours of the morning.

Dr Quigley says more immediate changes would be obvious if there was a steep rise in alcohol prices or a change to the age of consumption.