31 Aug 2012

Battles on alcohol price, advertising yet to come

12:06 pm on 31 August 2012

Opposition MPs are looking to what they say are bigger battles on alcohol reform following a vote in Parliament that left the age of buying liquor unchanged.

A conscience vote in Parliament on Thursday resulted in the legal age for buying alcohol remaining at 18.

MPs rejected the options of raising the purchase age to 20, or splitting the age so 18 and 19-year-olds could buy liquor at pubs, but not from shops.

Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson says more important issues than the purchase age are pricing, advertising and sponsorship, and keeping opening hours of liquor outlets to a minimum.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei agrees and says the same rules that ban advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products should apply to alcohol.

The remaining clauses of the Alcohol Reform Bill do not address alcohol pricing or marketing, but Radio New Zealand's political staff say the opposition is likely to propose amendments when the bill comes before Parliament again.

Justice Minister Judith Collins says she is keen to get bill passed as quickly as possible.

Ms Collins says other political parties have put in a number of amendments to the bill, which she says is slowing down the process, but the Ministry of Justice has told her that none of those proposed changes is worth passing.

'Missed opportunity'

Prime Minister John Key says moving to an alcohol purchase age of 20 would not have made sense given most teenagers are drinking cheap alcohol before they go to bars.

Mr Key is not convinced excessive drinking is taking place in bars, and says the real harm is done when young people drink excessively before they get to licensed premises.

However Otago University professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine Doug Sellman says Thursday's vote was a missed opportunity.

He believes the tactics used to stem tobacco use could be the answer to tackling New Zealand's heavy drinking culture.

Dr Sellman recommends raising the price of alcohol, reducing its availability and toughening up on any marketing that targets young drinkers.

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says there is increasing pressure on treatment services, particularly those for young people, and raising the age to 20 would have been a move in the right direction to deal with binge drinking.

Canterbury University economics lecturer Eric Crampton disagrees, arguing the extent of the youth binge drinking problem is exaggerated.

He says evidence shows that an increase in problem drinking immediately after the purchase age was lowered from 20 to 18 in 1998 has fallen right back, and outcomes are now on a par or better than before.