It’s always salutary to see ourselves as others see us.

Recently German-born Centre for Independent Studies researcher Oliver Hartwich wrote this piece on alcohol.

The first sentence is arresting: “Coming from a country where even petrol stations are allowed to sell alcoholic drinks as ‘essential traveller needs’, I have always found Australian alcohol practices rather bizarre”.

Imagine the outcry over any proposal to allow petrol stations to sell alcohol in New Zealand.  Anti-alcohol crusaders like Doug Sellman would have apoplexy.

I have no view on such a proposal, but shouldn’t we be willing to examine evidence from Germany?  After all, New Zealanders routinely observe that European drinking habits are better than ours.

Dr Hartwich commends competition among supermarkets in the interests of driving down prices for consumers.  The idea of imposing minimum prices on alcohol products as a means of reducing alcohol abuse makes no sense.

Recently MP Paul Quinn exposed the hypocrisy of doctors appearing before the select committee considering liquor law issues.  They wanted to ban supermarket sales yet bought their own supplies from supermarkets.

As Dr Hartwich observes, restricting the places that sell alcohol is ineffective in preventing excessive alcohol consumption.  “Licensing laws in Victoria and the ACT are more liberal than in NSW.  However, binge drinking or alcoholism appears no worse in Melbourne or Canberra than in Sydney.”

Parliament is debating a proposal to increase the purchase age to 20.  This would align New Zealand with only 11 other countries.  Eighty-one (including Australia) have a minimum age of 18, 12 (including Belgium, Germany, Norway and Spain) set the age at 16, and 17 have no drinking age at all.

As one expatriate New Zealander said to me, the proposed move would do nothing to attract young expatriates back: it would be a signal that New Zealand is ‘no country for young men’ (or women).

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are serious problems.  But as this submission by the Business Roundtable argued, heavy-handed regulation as proposed by the Law Commission is not the way to deal with them.

Crack down on recidivist drink drivers

David Farrar recently blogged on The Herald on Sunday’s story Number of repeat drink-drivers on the up. As I have previously blogged, I am largely supportive of the government’s response to the Law Commission review but I do feel that this is an area where they could do better. The government has proposed some measures to combat recidivist drink-driving, but they should have a much stronger focus on alcohol abusers who genuinely pose a threat to society rather than responsible drinkers. The HoS reported:

The number of recidivist drink-drivers has risen steadily over the past three years, and more than 4000 have been prosecuted already this year.

Many of them are involved in fatal crashes.

Figures released to the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act reveal 7200 people were convicted of their third or more drink-driving offence in 2009 compared with 6995 in 2008 and 6639 in 2007.

While the Business Roundtable has been critical of many of the Law Commission’s recommendations, we have gone on the record (p. 23) calling for tougher action in serious drink-driving cases. Last year in a media release on the Law Commission report I posed the question:

Why, for example, do we tolerate repeat drink driving offences without cancelling licences, naming and shaming offenders more prominently, using ignition interlocks, confiscating vehicles in serious cases and jailing recidivists?

I also think car-crushing was a brilliant idea for boy racers; why not do the same for recidivist drink drivers?

We need solutions like these that target alcohol abusers who pose a threat to society.– not laws that discriminate against responsible citizens, like banning dairies from selling wine or banning 18 and 19 year olds from off-licence purchasing (we would join only 11 other countries in the world with a minimum age of 20). I do have sympathy for 18 and 19 year olds and the ‘old enough to get married, join the army, go to jail, vote etc’ argument.

Meanwhile I read yesterday Professor Doug ‘the Ayatollah’ Sellman of the Alcohol Action Group calling supermarkets drug pushers and comparing their sale of wine to ecstasy or morphine. He wants to ban all alcohol sales in supermarkets. I wonder which countries we’d be joining if that basic convenience was removed from our lives?

To address problems like recidivist drink driving we need policies that target the misuse of alcohol rather than responsible use.

A toast to moderately common sense

Just back from the Alcohol Law Reform Stakeholders’ lockup where I found myself coincidentally sitting next to fellow stakeholder Doug Sellman.  Doug would have found a lot less to be pleased about in the government’s response to Geoffrey Palmer’s Liquor Review than I did.   Staying well away from the sledge-hammer, wowserish measures advocated by Doug and his colleagues that would penalise responsible drinkers and do nothing to curb abuse, the government’s decisions instead largely reflect a sensible, pragmatic response to the issues.  It’s pleasing to see many of the arguments set out in our submission were listened to.  For a good rundown on the package see David Farrar’s summary here.

There are a few strange quirks – for example the drinking hours proposed would put paid to a champagne breakfast – and some anti-consumer proposals for further study, such as introducing a minimum price system for alcohol.  And some, like the latter idea, are unlikely to pass the sniff test in any proper regulatory impact analysis.

But the serious omission, in my view, is anything much in the way of strategies to deal with abuse (see page 16 of our submission), emphasising individual and parental responsibility, disincentives and penalties for abusive behaviour, making abusers face the consequences of their actions (eg denying ACC benefits for self-inflicted harm), better enforcement of existing laws, and social sanctions. 

There are, of course, deeper causes that lie behind many of the problems of alcohol abuse, such as dysfunctional families, poor parenting and welfare dependency, and these urgently require attention.  But in the meantime, measures of the sort outlined above, that sheet home the costs and shame of alcohol abuse to those who abuse it, would go a long way to curbing our problem drinkers