28 Aug 2022

Minister rebukes health leader over alcohol bill support

8:24 am on 28 August 2022

South Auckland's top public health expert "crossed the line of political neutrality" by supporting a Green MP's alcohol harm reduction bill, Health Minister Andrew Little says.

Labour MP Andrew Little

Health Minister Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Director of Population Health in Counties Manukau Dr Gary Jackson wrote to a number of MPs in July, using a Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand letterhead.

He expressed concern about children's exposure to alcohol advertising and urged MPs to support Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick's alcohol harm minimisation bill.

Dr Jackson has since retracted the letter but in it said the legislation would give communities the power to decide alcohol availability in their local areas and protect children who watch broadcast sport.

"Children in New Zealand see alcohol advertising everywhere, especially promoted by their sporting heroes. The Bill proposes to take action on alcohol harm by restricting alcohol sports sponsorship and advertising," the letter said.

"We have a vision of unborn peepi, tamariki and rangatahi growing up free from the harms of alcohol. People should be able to live, work, play and socialise in communities free from the harms of alcohol. With your help, we can make real progress towards achieving this vision."

In a written response, Health Minister Andrew Little said he had become aware the sent letter had purported to represent that position as the view of the health system.

"Health workers have rights and many opportunities to speak up for health policy as part of their jobs, and that's a strength of our health system," Little's response said.

"Public servants acting in that capacity must always be mindful to not allow taxpayer resources to be perceived to be used for political party campaigns."

Little said in his view, the letter "crossed the line of political neutrality".

"It was not public advocacy of a health policy. I took the matter up with Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand and asked them to ensure they have processes in place to appropriately manage situations like these.

"That is because public service neutrality is a core principle in our democracy and allows departments to work with any government that New Zealanders elect."

Swarbrick's bill seeks to improve local control over alcohol regulation and sever the tie between sports and alcohol advertising and sponsorship. It was introduced to Parliament in June, but has yet to pass its first reading.

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