Friday, August 21, 2009

Winding back the liquor laws

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 19.)

I clearly recall the subject of the first newspaper editorial I ever wrote.

It was in the mid-1980s. The Pizza Hut chain wanted to open a restaurant in sleepy, change-averse Nelson and its application for a liquor licence created an outcry. Upright citizens, most of whom seemed unfamiliar with the Pizza Hut brand, were convinced the sale of beer and wine in this inoffensive family-oriented restaurant would create mayhem in the streets.

At the time I was news editor of the Nelson Evening Mail, as it was then called (the Evening has since been dropped). My job description didn't say anything about writing editorials, but the hysterical opposition to Pizza Hut so irritated me that I asked the then editor, Rick Neville, if I could use the paper's editorial column to introduce some balance into the debate.

It seems quaint, looking back. These days the opening of a licensed family restaurant wouldn’t provoke so much as a raised eyebrow. We have come a long way.

Our liquor laws have been cautiously liberalised over several decades, starting with the granting of the first restaurant liquor licences in 1960 (prior to which only hotels were allowed to serve alcohol with meals).

Pub opening hours were extended to 10pm in 1967, ending the notorious six o’clock swill. In 1976 the government created the BYO licence, which greatly reduced the expense of drinking wine with restaurant meals and helped kick-start a dining-out revolution.

In 1989, a rewrite of the Sale of Liquor Act allowed wine to be sold in supermarkets (though not on Sundays – that didn’t come until 1999, along with provision for beer to be sold in supermarkets as well). And of course the legal purchasing age was lowered, first from 21 to 20 in 1969 and then to 18 in 1999.

There was much about these reforms that was unsatisfactory. Liquor legislation was subject to a conscience vote in Parliament, just as moral issues were, which meant that MPs were subjected to furious lobbying by pro- and anti-liquor factions. Awkward compromises were struck as a result, and anomalies and inconsistencies abounded.

The bizarre law that allowed wine to be sold in supermarkets from Monday to Saturday but required it to be hidden from sight on Sundays, much to the bemusement of overseas tourists, was a classic example. Even specialist lawyers scratched their heads trying to unscramble the intricacies of legislation passed by MPs who were impelled more by last-minute lobbying than by logic.

Still, we were generally moving in the right direction, and many people (including me) welcomed these reforms as steps toward a more civilised society.

In the 1990s, alcohol consumption declined – vindicating the optimism of those who believed that if the state trusted people to drink responsibly, they would respond accordingly.

People weren’t just drinking less, they were drinking differently. They were consuming less beer and more wine, they were drinking more often with meals, and men were deserting the all-male preserve of the traditional public bar (which, in larger cities at least, is now virtually extinct) in favour of mixed company in more congenial surroundings. In other words, everything was proceeding pretty much as the proponents of reform predicted.

But then something happened. From about 1998 on, consumption began to rise again.

In our inimitable New Zealand way, we had lurched from one extreme to another – from being ludicrously over-regulated to having one of the most wide-open licensing regimes in the world. Bars were open around the clock and liquor outlets proliferated to the point where every second corner dairy had a licence.

We began hearing about an ugly phenomenon called teenage binge drinking. Getting “trolleyed” or “shit-faced” on Friday and Saturday nights became a point of pride rather than one of shame and embarrassment.

Alarm began to mount over public drunkenness, which some of us hoped had been consigned to history along with the six o’clock swill. Hospitals struggled with burgeoning alcohol-related admissions and reports of alcohol-fuelled crime became a staple news item in the Monday papers.

Now the inevitable has happened: public anxiety over alcohol has translated into political action. At the former Labour government’s request, the Law Commission under Sir Geoffrey Palmer has produced for public discussion a set of options which include reduced licensing hours, tougher drink-drive laws, higher taxes on cheap alcohol and a “split” minimum purchasing age: 18 for drinking on licensed premises and 20 for buying liquor from an off-licence.

Geoff Palmer says the commission is not advocating a return to the anti-alcohol phobia known as wowserism and we have no reason to doubt him. But the fact remains that the suggested law changes represent a partial winding-back of the liquor laws after decades of liberalisation.

It’s also true that while Geoff Palmer is no wowser, there are wowserish elements in universities, non-governmental organisations and the health bureaucracy that have lobbied vigorously for a curtailment of people’s right to make their own choices about where, when and how they drink. They are not religiously motivated like the wowsers of old, but they are no less moralistic and censorious.

The irony is that if the latter-day wowsers prevail, elements of the liquor industry will have only themselves to blame. Because rather than adjusting to the more mature and sophisticated alcohol market that began to develop in the 1990s, they greedily sought to ramp up demand for their products.

Sweet-flavoured alcopops flooded the market, taking advantage of a new cohort of naive young female drinkers. Irresponsible publicans promoted a culture of excessive consumption, targeting immature drinkers such as students. And Dominion Breweries, in a consummate marketing exercise, turned its once-obscure Tui label into a national cult brand to which young men, in particular, seem in thrall.

But while the trends of the past few years may have caused advocates of liberalisation to shake their heads in dismay, some good may come of the Law Commission’s review.

As Justice Minister Simon Power has pointed out, it presents an opportunity for a comprehensive and coherent rewrite of the liquor laws – something always thwarted in the past by the idiosyncrasies of the conscience vote, which Geoff Palmer has suggested should be abolished.

The big challenge will be devising a set of laws that doesn’t punish the majority, who are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly, for the misdeeds of the relatively small minority who don’t or can’t. Can it be done? Watch this space, as they say.

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