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Hon Laila Harré Speech Sale of Liquor Act 1989

Office of the Hon Laila Harré
Minister of Women's Affairs
Minister of Youth Affairs
Associate Minister of Commerce
Associate Minister of Labour

Address to 2nd Youth and Alcohol Summit
22 June 2000, 9am
Resolution Room, James Cook Centra Hotel, Wellington


A Minister's view of the changes to the Sale of Liquor Act 1989

Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to open this important summit on youth and alcohol.

Six months ago Parliament passed amendments to the Sale of Liquor Act which significantly changed the legal rights of young New Zealanders to purchase and consume alcohol.

One of the most important and hotly debated changes to the Act was the lowering of the legal drinking age to 18.

The debate illustrated the complexity of the issue and the diverse ways in which people decide what is right and wrong when it comes to a social issue like drinking.

In some cases, individuals from parties across the political spectrum saw eye-to-eye for the first time ever. In other cases, the closest of political colleagues were divided over whether or not 18 is old enough to make sensible decisions about drinking alcohol.

As a party, the Alliance collectively supported the lowering of the drinking age, and I supported it personally.

Whatever way they voted, my bet is that if you asked any of my parliamentary colleagues to reflect on the decision they made six months ago their response would be the same.

That's not to say that I would expect anyone to label the changes to the Sale of Liquor Act either a glowing success or dismal failure. After just six months it's far too early to make such a judgement call, as would be the case with any major law reform exercise.

So far, ALAC has provided one of the only solid pieces of research to come out since the Act changed. What that research reveals about teenage drinking habits is truly alarming, and I commend the publicity campaign the council has embarked on to better educate parents on this issue.

Conducted in March, the survey found the number of 14-18 year olds drinking five or more drinks on their last drinking occasion had increased to 44% - a 10% increase on the1997 figure.

Also of cause for concern was the fact that more than half of those surveyed got alcohol from their parents and friends.

There has been some anecdotal evidence from police, mainly in newspaper reports, that backs up ALAC's findings.

While I don't doubt the validity of either of these sources, the question raised is whether they indicate problems within the law, or problems with the healthy development of young people. In my view the latter is correct. The poor health status of adolescents in New Zealand is the underlying issue here. And the development of a youth health strategy and a general youth development strategy is critical to dealing with drug and alcohol abuse.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs also carried out a small "snapshot" survey on youth and alcohol in May.

Members of two Youth Affairs programmes - Conservation Corps and Youth Service Corps - under 18 years were asked to take part.

There were 120 respondents, and of these 105 were aware of the fact that it's illegal for under-18s to drink alcohol and that you must have a photo ID to drink alcohol at 18.

23 said it's easy to get alcohol since the law change, 54 said it's more difficult and 45 reported no change.

42 respondents said they bought alcohol at the local supermarket and the same number reported getting it at their local club or sports club.

65 said they bought it at the bottle store and 6 at the dairy. Nobody reported getting alcohol from their parents.

I'm not suggesting that the results of this survey detract from the findings of the one carried out by ALAC. It seeks different answers, but like ALAC's survey it clearly indicates that alcohol plays a role in the lives of a group of young people deemed underage by the current law.

Whichever source you draw conclusions from, this information is not new.

The misuse of alcohol by our young people, like a myriad of other risk-taking behaviours, has been on the increase for more than just the last six months.

Our 18 to 23-year-olds consume a quarter of the total alcohol consumed in this country.

Our young people also fare very poorly in statistics for employment, sexual health, road accidents, suicide and offending.

Research indicates alcohol and other substance abuse is a contributing factor to some of these other negative experiences.

So where, you may ask, lies the logic in making alcohol more accessible to a group of New Zealanders so obviously having real difficulty in making a go of it?

In short, the issue of youth development is not one that will stand or fall on the age at which someone has access to whisky, wine or beer – access that has been extended to supermarkets alongside the lowering of the drinking age.

In all the debate around the sale of liquor laws we managed to completely avoid a few glaring issue around the misuse and abuse of alcohol – things like unemployment, poverty, violence, abuse and social alienation.

While we talked about reforming the liquor laws, we failed to talk about the sorts of social investments that are needed to have a society in which access to alcohol does not inevitably result, as it does for so many New Zealanders, in the perpetration of harm to themselves or other people.

Many of the young survey respondents that admit to regularly drinking until they pass out are following in the footsteps of the very people that should be providing good, strong examples of responsible adult behaviour.

There are many social and economic reasons that some adults find it difficult to be these positive role models. But I'm sure there are many parents out there who are doing what they can to overcome the cycle of alcohol abuse within their families, and applaud ALAC's lead in this area.

The council has produced excellent information on how parents can better communicate with young people about sensible alcohol use and support safer drinking habits.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs has also produced a valuable resource entitled Alcohol, Drugs and Young People – An Information Guide for Parents Caregivers and Whanau.

This is designed to help parents discuss with young people issues around drinking and drug use and guides them to where they can access information on the issues.

Such tools empower parents to encourage their sons and daughters, through education, to at least delay their use of alcohol and drugs until they understand the risks associated with misuse and are able to make informed decisions.

When talking about alcohol and youth, we also must bear in mind that not all teenagers engage in the irresponsible, risk-taking behaviour that inevitably makes newspaper headlines. To presume that all young people, when given the option of drinking alcohol, have the potential to turn into delinquents, criminals or worse is, in my view, discriminatory.

New Zealand Parliament once restricted the access of alcohol to Maori because, in their view, they were too weak and incapable of making responsible decisions about accessing alcohol. I don't accept, that like Maori of the past, a group of young adults should be subjected to discrimination simply because they are young.

What is clear is that like anyone who chooses to use a powerful drug like alcohol, they must have the fortitude to use it in moderation and not as a magic potion to cure or mask their perceived problems.

And the truth is that there is no evidence that an 18-year-old has any less cognitive ability than an older adult. The evidence says that adolescents are as capable of adults of considering the consequences of actions.

So there is no particular reason why a greater level of protection or control should be applied to an 18-year-old than a 24-year-old when it comes to alcohol. And it is clear from ALAC's survey that it is in fact an adult culture around alcohol that many affected younger adults are mimicking.

What the alarming statistics around underage and binge drinking tell us is that too many of our young people are suffering from the other people's lack of vision when it comes to youth development.

The problems young people face are not problems they have created themselves – including the problems alcohol may be creating in their homes and communities.

If we are to improve on these statistics and empower our young people to make informed choices we must adopt a youth development approach.

This is one of the key priority projects on the Ministry of Youth Affairs work programme for the coming year, and this work will align with initiatives being developed by government for rangatahi Maori and young Pacific people.

This youth development strategy will work alongside the government's job creation initiatives, namely the modern apprenticeship scheme and Jim Anderton's regional development programme.

The importance of job creation when it comes to improving the status of our young people simply cannot be overlooked.

A recent report from the Invercargill Safer Community Council talked to 12 recidivist offenders aged 14 to 17 about their offending. All said they consumed alcohol mostly to "get pissed" and regularly smoked marijuana.

Boredom played a major role in their lives, and 11 of the 12 said that if they had a job they would not offend at all.

Studies like these show the importance of economic, social and community development programmes when it comes to addressing drug and alcohol issues for young people.

It's also crucial that young people are encouraged to contribute to the development of these programmes. Participation in a democratic system is an essential way of encouraging healthy youth development. Dismissing young people as adults in waiting, and therefore incapable of making decisions about what they need, is denying them the full rights of citizenship.

So the short answer to the question put to me this morning is that my views of changes to the Sale of Liquor Act are the same as they were six months ago. What has changed since then is the government, and as Minister of Youth Affairs I believe we starting to make changes that will address some of the problems that lie behind the alarming statistics surrounding youth and alcohol.

Many different sector groups are represented here today. I encourage you all to report back honestly on how you think the changes are working, and how you think they will serve our youth in the long-term.

The government has an important role to play in this issue, but the onus is also on you, as retailers, licence holders, youth workers and researchers to also find ways of making these changes work.

Thank-you and I wish you well for the rest of the summit.


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