health & science

Alcohol Act struggles under industry pressure

Alcohol industry appeals have “muted” potential benefits of legislation aimed at reducing the estimated $14.5 million a day cost of alcohol harm, a new study finds.

Massey University research shows the only effect of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 (SSAA) is a reduction in alcohol availability after 4am in cities.

The alcohol industry appealed 30 of 32 alcohol policies proposed by councils to reduce harmful drinking.

Lead researcher Stephen Randerson said alcohol related harm was estimated to cost New Zealand $5.3 billion per year.

“That was in 2005, so it’s probably going to have risen since then. The things that feed in to this are the cost of emergency services including police work where alcohol is involved in at least one in three call-outs, the emergency department and the health cost of chronic disease caused by alcohol.”

In the 12 months to March, alcohol retail sales reached $1.6b with 2016 figures showing government received $661 million in alcohol excise tax according to Statistics New Zealand.

“There is a huge body of work which has found repeatedly that education fails to change behaviour around drinking, it’s also very expensive. It’s probably the least effective solution, yet it’s the one they [the alcohol industry] talk about most.”

Randerson said research has consistently shown correlation between harm and hours of alcohol availability.

"The one thing that is needed to reduce alcohol related harm is to reduce our consumption of it, and that’s pretty much opposite to what the alcohol industry’s interests are."

The legislation Randerson studied allowed councils to adopt a Local Alcohol Policy (LAP) for the sale and supply of alcohol to reduce harm in their communities.

The study found much of the intended benefit of the SSAA legislation was stifled by alcohol industry appeals which generally focussed on a lack of local evidence linking reduced availability to reduced harm.

Evidence of the alcohol industry’s resistance have made headlines since the act was introduced.

An attempt by Dunedin City Council to limit supermarket and off-licence sales from 7am - 11pm to 9am – 9pm and to close most bars by 3am was appealed by several parties, including liquor stores and supermarket chains Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprise.

Foodstuff’s appeal said the council’s policy was based on a “complete lack of evidence” of local harm.

The argument was taken to the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority who found the 9am – 9pm proposed hours were unreasonable because the council wasn’t able to provide evidence to prove harm would be avoided by reducing sale hours.

Similar battles have been lost in other cities where paradoxically a potential local benefit of restriction couldn’t be proved without first implementing the restriction to gather proof.

Christchurch abandoned its alcohol policy after spending five years and over $1 million attempting to implement it. Their plan was appealed by Hospitality New Zealand who said there was no evidence submitted to show reducing hours alcohol was available would reduce harm.

Massey University’s study says appeals were the most commonly reported impediment to developing a LAP and only five LAPs were in place by 2015 despite 32 of 63 territorial authorities having created a draft.

More than half of all provisional LAPs were appealed by Progressive Enterprises, Foodstuffs, and Super Liquor Holdings.

The study also highlighted the need for national intervention including implementing recommendations made in a 2010 Law Commission report which suggested increases to alcohol taxation and purchase age, and restricting alcohol advertising.

Randerson said increasing taxes affected heavy and younger drinkers and getting these groups to reduce their consumption had long-term public health benefits. He rejected claims he has heard from the alcohol industry suggesting education is key.

“There is a huge body of work which has found repeatedly that education fails to change behaviour around drinking, it’s also very expensive. It’s probably the least effective solution, yet it’s the one they [the alcohol industry] talk about most.”

He said denying the effect that raising tax has on consumption is like “denying climate change”.

“About 45 percent of all alcohol sold is consumed in heavier sessions which is much more likely to cause harm so there is a really clear conflict of interest between affecting harmful drinking and nearly half of the industry’s profits”

The New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council was set up in March to give voice to various businesses in the alcohol industry.

Executive director, Nick Leggett, said the study is one of a number driven by the authors' ideological belief alcohol is bad.

“The complaint that the alcohol industry is somehow responsible for this nefarious challenge to council local alcohol plans – the whole act required there to be evidence, for there to be proof of harm to justify particular restrictions, regulations and rules.”

He said the cases overturned in court did not have evidence to back up the claims.

“The alcohol industry is very keen to continue to support measures and be part of partnerships with government, community and public health too, to work to reduce harm.”

Leggett said he objected to calls to reduce alcohol advertising saying it was a legitimate business. 

"It doesn’t advertise to create harm to people who don’t drink or don’t want to drink anymore. It’s about market share and competition between businesses."

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