The title of this post comes from the New Zealand Alcohol Advisory Council’s (ALAC) latest ad campaign targeting the drinking culture. One of ALAC’s previous campaigns had the punch line “it’s not the drinking – it’s how we’re drinking.” Anyway, you get the idea – if you need to have ad campaigns telling the country that people are drinking too much or irresponsibly, there’s probably a problem. The government’s known this for ages, of course, but it’s a tricky area to regulate. How do you put something in legislation that will help prevent someone from “having a few beers” (particularly in the privacy of their own home) and possibly ending up in the emergency room/jail/doghouse because of something they did while they were drunk?
When it comes to the law, a lot of the debate has been focused on the youth drinking side of things. The usual story, I guess – from the perspective of the kids anyway – the adults are all outraged at teenagers getting hold of alcohol (at younger ages as well: the purchase age was reduced from 20 to 18 in 1999 in New Zealand) and essentially being initiated into the binge drinking culture that, well, they inherited from their parents who inherited it from their parents and so on. That’s not to say that youth drinking isn’t a problem – it definitely is, and anyone who’s witnessed the scene at some New Zealand beaches on New Years Eve will attest to that.
The focus on youth drinking is also seen in the latest proposals to amend the liquor laws in New Zealand, which include introducing a “split” drinking age so that only people aged 20 or older can purchase alcohol from “off-licence” premises (i.e. alcohol retail outlets, as opposed to bars), along with other measures aimed at making alcohol less accessible (and possibly less appealing) to young people. The proposals do seek to affect the drinking culture in a number of other ways as well, including putting some of the responsibility on parents, and changing what liquor license holders, retailers, and local authorities can and can’t do. For example, if the amendments go through, adults who host teen parties at their houses would need to get the permission of other parents to supply alcohol, or face a fine of NZ$2,000 (about US$1,400) (and if it is supplied, they’ll be required to do so in a “responsible manner”). Other proposals include:
- Restricting RTDs [“Ready to Drinks” e.g. alcopops] to 5 per cent alcohol content and limiting RTDs to containers holding no more than 1.5 standard drinks.
- Allowing the Minister of Justice, in consultation with the Minister of Health, to ban alcohol products which are particularly appealing to minors or particularly dangerous to health.
- Empowering local communities to decide on the concentration, location, and hours of alcohol outlets (including one-way-door policies) for both on and off-licences in their area through the adoption of local alcohol policies.
- Setting national default maximum hours of 7am – 11pm for off-licences and 8am – 4am for on-licence, club licence, and special licences for local authorities who do not adopt a local alcohol policy.
- Increasing penalties for a range of licence breaches, including allowing an intoxicated person to be on licensed premises, allowing violent behaviour to take place on premises, and running an irresponsible promotion.
- Widening the definition of ‘public place’ in liquor bans to include car parks, school grounds and other private spaces to which the public has legitimate access.
- Strengthening the existing offence of promotion of excessive consumption of alcohol by making it apply to any business selling or promoting alcohol, and setting out examples of unacceptable promotions, such as giving away free alcohol.
- Making it an offence to promote alcohol in a way that has special appeal to people under the purchase age. These changes will apply to any promotion, including TV advertising and billboards.
The proposals put forward by the government have arisen from the 153 recommendations of a major review of alcohol laws undertaken by the Law Commission. Some people are supportive of the changes, but others think they don’t go far enough – that they’re like “treating cancer with a couple of aspirin.” The issue is set to be vigorously debated in Parliament (and by the public) in the coming months, just as it has been every other time changes to this area of the law are proposed.
I sometimes try to explain the New Zealand drinking culture to friends here in the U.S. One example that I use is the fact that it’s quite normal for workplaces (including government agencies, large law firms, small businesses, etc.) to host “Friday night drinks” for employees (and sometimes quite “festive” Christmas parties as well). In fact, Parliament itself has an exemption from the liquor licensing laws, as do private bars run by the police.
I was interested to see that one of the proposals is for Parliament to “lead the way” by removing its own exemption. The fact that there’s not a similar proposal in relation to police bars has been criticized by some people who say that the police should set an example and remove their exemption as well – particularly given that they are tasked with enforcing the liquor laws and the fact that alcohol is a significant factor in criminal offending. The government (and the police association) disagrees, saying that the bars are run responsibly and the police need to be able to unwind and discuss matters without being overheard. This is just one aspect of a much broader debate that affects so many sectors and members of New Zealand society.