Booze barons rule in liquor review

Earlier this month the Law Commission released its issues paper reviewing the sale and supply of alcohol. Since then there has been paltry public comment with most reporting being focused on the tentative suggestions the Commission made for law changes.

These include: reducing availability of cheap alcohol to price-sensitive younger drinkers; increasing the age for purchasing alcohol from bottle stores to 20; reducing tax on low alcohol products; reducing the hours of purchase and increasing conditions on the granting of liquor licenses. The public has been given three months to make submissions on these and any other changes we’d like to see in the laws.

The Commission’s 279 page report points to the high social and economic costs of alcohol and the growth of youth binge drinking. It doesn’t say so bluntly but we drink in an effectively unregulated market where the money spent advertising alcohol and alcohol promotions swamp the public health messages.

The alcohol lobby have resigned themselves to the fact that there will be law changes so they are arguing to push responsibility onto drinkers rather than regulate producers and providers of alcohol. They want more spent by the government at the bottom of the cliff rather than face regulations at the top. For example the hospitality sector suggests we should re-introduce the offence of being drunk in a public place as a way to bring home to drinkers the unacceptability of their behaviour. This is fair comment but it seems more designed to try and head off proposals for reduced drinking hours or anything which will reduce consumption in pubs and bars. These purveyors of so much misery want to blame the individuals for the anti-social problems created by the products they sell.

All of this misses the point. We are in a drink-soaked culture where the unregulated market is creating ever younger victims each year. The massive economic power of the booze industry largely dictates the direction of public debate and policy development.

Instead of decent laws we have voluntary codes of conduct around advertising. The Commission points to the problems with the voluntary code in this example.

“Consider that in New Zealand the Code for Advertising Liquor requires that advertisements not be “sexually provocative or suggestive or suggest any link between liquor and sexual attraction or performance”. While recognising the humorous context, the central feature of a recent advertising campaign for a well known beer brand was the physical attractiveness of the female ‘employees’ featured in the set of advertisements. In this way, self-regulatory systems can permit promotions that connect alcohol products with aspirational values or underlying messages ….”

They are talking about the bikini clad models in the Tui adds on TV which shows the voluntary advertising code is all but worthless. Youngsters and young teenagers are bombarded with sexualised images promoting alcohol brands.

The booze barons say all they are doing is trying to increase their market share rather than engage youngsters in drinking. This is the same cynical argument used by cigarette companies to avoid regulation. The sheer economic power of the booze industry and the lack of effective regulation means they have a captive market of youngsters who are as vulnerable to advertising as Hitler youth were to those holding public power at that time.

We have alcohol outlets on too many street corners, especially in our low income areas, alcohol adds on TV, billboards, magazines and alcohol product promotions associated with popular bands.

Incidentally here in Auckland last week the tenth liquor licence was issued for Auckland’s Karangahape Road but the licensee is appealing against the decision. He’s incensed that the hours of opening have been reduced below that of other outlets in the street.

Despite all this the Law Commission is opposing any significant ban on advertising for the perverse reason that such a ban could be in contravention of Section 14 of the Human Rights Act. This section covers freedom of speech and apparently a ban would raise “commercial free speech issues”. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Why should the so-called rights of the booze barons with enormous economic power supersede the rights of teenagers to live in a healthy social environment?

Are our policy makers so enthralled by corporate power that they rule out the single most important factor in curbing our dangerous drink culture before they start?

My suggestion is we level the playing field for our kids by banning all advertising and promotion of alcohol.

Among developed countries France has bitten the bullet and delivered a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising. New Zealand should do the same.

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