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August 2010

Church, community leaders call for limits on booze

By Hilaire Campbell

Everyone knows New Zealanders like a drink but the fallout from too many has led to a Law Commission report calling for tougher liquor laws.

On 11 July, a group of prominent citizens including church leaders, former governor generals, and prominent figures in the Maori and Pasifika communities petitioned the government to act on its recommendations.

Chairman of the group is Sir Paul Reeves, churchman and former governor general, is the convener of the group. He says the report addresses law and order, public health and economics. “It seeks to change the way in which society orders itself and constructs laws to function.”

Sir Paul is of Te Atiawa descent; he lives in Auckland and belongs to “many communities”. He’s not a teetotaler. He has a glass of wine with his wife (he calls it “a kind of communion”), and he did his time in shearing gangs and playing around with the lads. But he feels the stories he hears about alcohol are different today and worse.

“A taxi driver in Courtney Place told me it’s common to deal with bunches of young girls drunk from ‘pre loading’ early in the evenings. A 16-year old choked on his vomit and died. There’s an assumption that everything we do in this country needs substantial amounts of alcohol to accompany it.”

Sir Paul is all for regulating the sale and marketing of alcohol.

“The Law Commision’s plan is backed by WHO. It comes with scientific proof that the brain doesn’t mature till the early 20s, Youth are at risk because the damage is permanent but the market is cunning. Alco pops are fizzy and they say you are cool, but they have more alcohol than some wines.”

Public health advocate Sir Mason Durie is another signatory. He says it is a huge report but it boils down to five main points.

It recommends raising the buying age for alcohol, raising the price, making alcohol less accessible, restricting advertising, and knocking back blood alcohol limits for drink drivers . The 5+ plan also includes treatment for habitual, usually older drinkers.

“It’s not a new debate,” says Sir Mason, “we’ve been talking since 1999, when there was significant law change. The drinking age was lowered to 18 and convenience stores were allowed to sell alcohol. Places like South Auckland, full of the most vulnerable people, Maori and Pasifika, were deliberately targeted by the liquor industry.

“Their style of drinking and their age is a concern. Every day you read in the Herald of binge drinking school kids, violence, and car crashes. But the culture is widespread: sports clubs, New Year’s Eve, now the Undie 500. You won’t solve it by addressing individuals. It must be regulated. Fewer liquor outlets for starters.

“In the past we used the law to detain people for tuberculosis treatment. We’ve taken the lead with smoking, which has caught on with parents but we’re not so good with alcohol.”

Sir Mason says it’s a dilemma for the government but it’s a balancing act. Overseas studies show that higher taxes on alcohol can increase problems.

“The report is a reminder that the debate is not settled and that we need to move forward for health reasons.”

Sir Mason has been honoured for his services to public health and Maori health. He trained as a psychiatrist in Montreal where he was influenced by a case study on the effects of alcohol on health.

He has said we are like the four walls of a house – his whare tapa wha model. If you take one side out, be it emotional, social, spiritual or physical, the rest suffer. And Maori are especially susceptible. Any solution to the current problems around alcohol must consider these things.

Sir Paul says so far the government has kept quiet about the Law Commission’s report but it will make a legislative response to the recommendations.

“The question is whether it fiddles round the edges or makes fundamental changes that lead to fundamental changes in behaviour. It’s better to start anywhere than nowhere.”