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Alcohol policy roundtable

28 February 2005

Alcohol policy roundtable

Kia Ora good morning ladies and gentlemen, it's a pleasure to be here today at this important event.

I've spent a large part of the last year expounding the problematic part alcohol plays in our society, and to be joined in doing so by international and other distinguished guests here today is very exciting.

No doubt the exchange of ideas and expertise will lead to a better understanding of the challenges we face, and will help progress solutions.

I'd like to thank the Members of Parliament hosting today's event – Dianne Yates Matt Robson, Judy Turner, Nandor Tanczos, Edwin Perry and Dr Paul Hutchison.

Thank you also to the NZ Drug Foundation for organising the day, and to Sir Kerry Burke for chairing it. As current West Coast MP, I feel a certain affiliation with Sir Kerry, who fulfilled the same role some 20 years ago. So we're both familiar with an electorate renowned for its "hospitality". But West Coasters are not alone in their partiality to a drink or two. Right around New Zealand, alcohol is playing a destructive and damaging part in people's lives. We have a culture that says it's okay to drink, infact, it says it's okay to get drunk.

You'll know the facts, but lets briefly remind ourselves of them. Binge drinking is widely practiced and largely accepted in New Zealand. A recent survey found 450,000 adults had drunk beyond the point of intoxication on their last drinking occasion; 275,000 had deliberately set out to get drunk. It is not alcohol that's the problem, it's how we use it.

The subsequent costs to society are high. Economist Brian Easton estimates that alcohol-related harm eats up 8 per cent of the health budget – that's $655million – and 20 per cent of the police budget.

As a government we're committed to reducing these costs and improving drinking habits. Part of that commitment was approving the ALAC levy increase last year, which will fund a new and comprehensive programme of work to change our drinking culture.

The programme, which is made up of a marketing campaign and a range of associated initiatives, marks a big step towards reducing the huge economic and social costs of alcohol harm. The first phase of it is about getting people thinking about how drunkenness need not be the social norm; the next phase is to encourage them to analyse their own attitude to heavy drinking and their own behaviour.

Why did we make the decision to tackle culture? Because it's the crux of the problem. And because by doing so we're saying that every single one of us has a responsibility to improve our drinking habits - not just youth, not just those in their early twenties, not just those at the local AA meeting; every one of us.

I'm well aware of the criticisms that have been levelled at the programme, some from people within these four walls. Critics have described it as everything from "a mere advertising campaign" to "a waste of time". Some say the government is naïve to endorse it.

As a case in point, I'm told that at last week's Thinking and Drinking conference in Melbourne, (where, incidentally, ALAC's presentation of the marketing campaign was greeted with rapturous applause) a handful of New Zealand delegates took it upon themselves to express their scepticism about the programme.

I'd like to say to those people wishing to undermine the ALAC initiative, don't waste your effort. Or first show me a solution that's more worthy of support than one that alters society's attitude towards alcohol.

Some say the solution lies in stricter laws, restricted outlets, no advertising, increasing in the legal purchase age and hiking up the price of alcohol through tax. But let me put it to you that not one of these measures will stop New Zealanders going out and getting blottoed, if that is what they wish to do, and if they believe doing so is harmless.

Take marijuana; it's illegal, so there are no outlets, there's no advertising, there's no legal purchase age and there's no taxation. Do these controls stop people smoking cannabis? No. Do they reduce the harm? No. Do they eliminate the wider problems of cannabis in our society? No.

We're not ignoring policy intervention options. We haven't closed the door on pricing for example, nor on outlet density and we've asked officials to look at options for a government-led review of advertising. We're not ruling out action on any of these fronts. But they are not the sole solution.

The solution lies in educating New Zealanders about the harms and dangers of alcohol and in turning our drinking culture on its head. We don't want to stop people drinking; we just want them to be responsible and aware of the dangers of excessive consumption.

The Culture Change Programme is a long-term strategy. It's not a silver bullet that'll solve the problem overnight and we've never painted it as such. It will take time to impact, but when it does that impact will be widespread and enduring.

I'm excited about the Culture Change programme. We've tried other things in the past to stem the binge-drinking tide, but now it's really time to get to the heart of the problem and do something long-term. I'm confident the programme is the right approach and I'm proud we're taking this bold and leading-edge approach.

The programme is not being carried out in a vacuum. A range of associated initiatives back it up and work is being done in many more areas to address the alcohol issue.

One is the area of enforcement, in which there has been some huge progress recently. Police are now actively cracking down on breaches of the Sale of Liquor Act, from the illegal sale of liquor, to intoxicated people in licensed premises. With some good results I might add.

Their latest initiative, Alcolink, is designed to identify the premises that are serving patrons to the point where they get into trouble with the law. When processing suspected offenders, police collect details about the offender's alcohol consumption prior to coming to the police's attention. If the person had their last drink at licensed premises, the details of that premises are recorded.

New South Wales police, who've been using this system, have found that a small minority of licensed premises are linked to the overwhelming majority of alcohol-related problems they encounter. They can then actively work with the licensees, and the wider hospitality sector, to drive down alcohol-related offending and victimisation.

New Zealand police are also working closely with local government and licensees to educate and improve enforcement.

The fact is, we already have robust alcohol laws in place; the focus must be on understanding, recognising and enforcing these laws. Tomorrow's Working Together conference in Auckland will look at exactly that. It will focus on Sale of Liquor issues and cover things like guidelines for identifying and dealing with intoxication and controlled purchase operations.

The government is right behind labels warning against the dangers of drinking while pregnant. The industry is considering doing this voluntarily, and we're well on the way to this happening. I expect to see the industry's proposed mock-up in the next few weeks. If we're not happy with it, we'll pursue compulsory labelling, with an application to FSANZ.

This government is committed to reducing alcohol harm. But we do not wish to do it alone. I think the most important thing to stress today is that a collaborative approach is needed if we're going to conquer this issue. Certainly that will be the focus at tomorrow's conference.

In November I hosted a meeting that brought together a range of organisations concerned with reducing alcohol-related harm. Attendees included public health officials, NGOs and the alcohol industry. The purpose was to outline ALAC's programme, and to spark honest, open discussion.

All parties agreed that we've got to tackle dangerous drinking head on, and while there was obviously some discussion about how this should be done, there was also a lot of agreement and a clear willingness to work together.

Let's not lose this momentum. Let's not all crawl back into our corners and refuse to connect with one another. We all have a role to play, and every one is important.

It's been a pleasure to address you today. Good luck with today's discussions.


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