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Robson Speech: Sale of Liquor Amendment Bill


Hon Matt Robson MP, Progressive Deputy Leader

Speech notes – first reading of: Sale of Liquor (Youth Alcohol Harm Reduction) Amendment bill

In 1999 Parliament, narrowly, voted to lower the minimum purchasing age of alcohol to 18. The New Zealand Drug Foundation, the Ministry of Health, the Alcohol Advisory Committee (ALAC) and other public health organisations at the time opposed the lowering of the drinking age.

There is one speech that I remember well. It went like this: “I have to say that the term “conscience vote” is something of a misnomer, because I believe that I also have a responsibility to the people who elected me to Parliament to represent their viewpoints. On the key controversial age of the drinking age, every poll conducted, including a poll I did in my own electorate, show s that, overwhelmingly, by a margin of two to one, the public does not want the drinking age to be lowered.”

The member went on to say: “A national survey showed that a quarter of 16 and 17 year olds were binge drinkers each week I wonder whether lowering the drinking age, with the impact that will inevitably have of lowering the defacto age of drinking, will make that situation better.”

The member does not have to wonder any more. The Hon Phil Goff, the Minister of Justice, has evidence from his own officials and from the Ministry of Health to show that his direst predictions have eventuated.

And if the Justice officials and the Ministry of Health are not enough to confirm what Mr Goff wondered about the New Zealand Police present him with conclusive evidence that his worst fears have eventuated.

In a report the Police state: Alcohol is increasingly available in today’s new Zealand. As well as the 1999 lowering of the minimum legal age for purchasing alcohol, which has legally allowed a whole new group of 18-19 year olds to buy liquor and to drink on licensed premises. There have never been as many places you can get hold of alcohol as there is today.

As the policing task has got bigger and bigger, more and more pressure is placed on already stretched resources…In some cases this means police cells filling up with grossly intoxicated people on Thursday an, Friday and Saturday nights; or those who are less intoxicated, but for whom too much alcohol has contributed to them getting into a fight, or being caught drink-driving, or wanting to carry on drinking in a public place despite there being a liquor ban by-law in effect.

So we are seeing greater numbers of young people being referred to Youth Aid for alcohol-related numbers involved in alcohol-related crashes or driving offences and greater numbers of young people being picked up for disorderly behaviour or receiving liquor Infringement Notices for various offences.

And LTSA figures consistently tell us that alcohol is a contributing factor in around 25 percent of fatal crashes, and 20 percent of serious injury crashes on our roads.

And the Police concur with the Ministry officials reporting to Minister Goff that all this evidence “ present a picture of the change in legislation having a detrimental effect on young people’s drinking behaviour.”

And yet despite this overwhelming evidence that our legislation needs to be urgently reviewed Minister of Justice Goff and Associate Minister of Justice Barker have advised their Labour Caucus not to vote for this bill.

I can tell them that their Progressive colleagues in government are going to vote for it and will campaign for the public health evidence on this crucial issue to see the light of day.

Associate Minister of Health and Progressive leader Jim Anderton has told me that in the countless forums that he has held on drugs and alcohol up and down the country that the voice of the public health experts, the Police and the community is that they want effective action on the number one drug problem of alcohol.

In 2004 public health experts were asked to report to the Ministerial Committee on Drug Policy on the effect of the 1999 legislation to lower the drinking age.

The report was delivered in August of 2004. Its finding was unequivocal: “From a public health perspective there is enough international and New Zealand evidence to strongly suggest that there would be overall population health benefits from raising New Zealand’s current Minimum Legal Purchasing Age back to 20 years.”

I read this report and many others on the effect of the lowering of the drinking age. I talked with many public health agencies and their experts.

I concurred with the ministerial report that we, the Members of Parliament, had got it wrong. All New Zealand evidence along with international studies were in agreement with a June 2004 study by the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland that: “Delaying the initiation of drinking from early adolescence to late adolescence is an important goal for prevention efforts.”

In our ministerial report the research showed that with, the lowering of the drinking age in 1999, harmful patterns of drinking alcohol had emerged and that these harms had extended well below the new legal age of 18. The hope in 1999 that civilised drinking patterns would develop in the 18-19 age group and that strict enforcement would prevent under-age alcohol consumption had not been fulfilled.

Hospital admissions for heavily intoxicated 13-17 year olds had increased along with 18-19 year olds. Traffic crash data for both age groups for both fatal and non-fatal accidents showed that the contribution of alcohol had dramatically increased. The number of fatal crashes during “high alcohol” hours had increased sharply.

In all areas studied, from hospital admissions to sexually transmitted diseases the lowering of the drinking age was associated with greater alcohol-related harm. It was this evidence that caused me to submit my private member’s bill which will raise the minimum legal purchase age of alcohol back to 20 and set strict controls on the advertising of alcohol. The self-regulation regime for advertising by the liquor industry has not worked.

Opponents of the bill have stated that the genie once released cannot be put back in the bottle. I am not sure if these opponents have consciously used the image of the bottle. But Parliament has to deal with the real world not the imaginary one.

And we have to learn from other public health measures as to what are the appropriate steps to take. We cannot use magic. We have to rely on scientific methods and tried and tested techniques.

Opponents have also criticised my bill as being a “narrow, legalistic approach” and they say that we face a deeper social question. I agree that if we don’t take up the deeper social questions and have a range of responses, that legislation itself will be insufficient to deal with alcohol abuse.

But an appropriate legal framework is required to keep the “genie in the bottle“ and allow us to carry out educational activity which is not fruitless.

Parliament needs to set a legal age that is in accord with the best public health advice available. Furthermore Parliament needs to regulate, as my bill does, advertising by the liquor industry. That industry does not put the public good as its paramount pursuit. Thus its alliance with the sporting and entertainment worlds to showcase the glamour of alcohol. That alliance is in pursuit of profit.

But alcohol is a mind altering depressant drug. It is no ordinary commodity that should be marketed like toothpaste or porridge. Without appropriate legislation and regulation for advertising all the education in the world to change the culture of drinking will fall on barren soil.

In excess of $50 million advertising dollars per year is spent in the broadcast media alone to promote alcohol. Sport and sex are becoming the common ingredients to promote this mind-altering drug.

Target audiences are becoming younger and younger. The harm and the staggering number of cancers from alcohol are not part of the advertising.

Liquor industry psychology researchers callously target the “ drinking” of 11-14 and 15-17 year olds. They use the knowledge that educationalists have discovered of development stages to target our young people.

New longitudinal studies, particularly in the United States, are showing that advertising in all mediums is having a great effect on young people in inducing them to drink at a younger and younger age and more frequently. Our Parliament needs to study these trends if we are to make appropriate decisions for the public good.

We need to decide whether Heineken placing two bottles of their beer in the two holders in Play Station controls is in the public interests. Members will know that advertising like that is aimed squarely at teenage, and below, drinkers.

Appropriate analogies to show the need for legislation while accepting that a comprehensive approach is required can be drawn with other public health measures. Safer driving is a good place to start as alcohol plays a large role in unsafe driving. It is also a major factor in youth crime.

Educational campaigns and methods that teach us and exhort us to drive safely are an important part of our efforts to lower the road toll and protect our citizens from dangerous, careless and negligent driving. But a legal framework is needed to ensure that drivers comply with rules and regulations that make us safe. One important part of the law that is being debated now is the wisdom of the driving age.

We have gone from allowing a full driving licence to be gained at 15 years and one day to placing a range of restrictive conditions and hurdles that have to be passed before a full licence is granted. Consideration is now being given, by experts, to whether the age of application for a learner’s licence, the first step, should be raised. The objective is the safety of the young driver and the public. It is not to prevent young people from having “fun”. It is aimed at allowing them to live a long life.

A further analogy can be drawn with the legislative changes regarding tobacco smoking. Education has played an important part in teaching the public the harm of tobacco smoking. But legislation has had to be introduced to enforce smoke-free environments to protect our health. Legislation has been necessary to prohibit the sale of tobacco to minors and to have health warnings on tobacco products. The tobacco industry would have continued to use sporting events to promote their product without the intervention of Parliament.

My bill as well as returning the purchase age of alcohol to 20 will restrict the broadcast of liquor advertising before 10pm on any day. The control of promotion of this mind-altering drug will be shifted from a self-regulating industry body, the Advertising Standards Authority, to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. International evidence establishes that young people are being exposed to an unprecedented amount of alcohol advertising and that this has dramatic effect on increasing youth consumption of alcohol.

Advertising is a strong factor in the early initiation of drinking. The earlier that drinking of alcohol begins, the greater the likelihood of harm.

Science needs to link up with policy makers. And that is what this bill in a select committee will allow. For example we can then consider, soberly, the latest research from Duke University on alcohol and the adolescent brain. That research has revealed that:

There is mounting evidence that repeated exposure to alcohol during adolescence leads to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory.

And that: “While the long-lasting effects of alcohol abuse during adolescence might reflect brain damage in the traditional sense, there is certainly reason to believe that such effects might also involve alterations in normal brain development.”

The 2001 World Health Organisational global status report Alcohol and Young People describes alcohol use among young people as “approaching the status of an international epidemic.” This report highlights the fact that marketing has a critical role with an intensification of targeting young people with inexpensive new products designed to appeal to them as well as heavy marketing of established inexpensive products like beer.

The report states that “experimental and evaluation research has found policy approaches, including minimum drinking age, higher taxes, and regulation of marketing can be effective” whereas it notes “educational approaches have shown little effectiveness in reducing or preventing youth drinking and related consequences.”

The WHO in its report calls for action worldwide. That report and our own Ministerial report cannot be ignored by responsible Members of Parliament.

My bill is a moderate response to the request of the WHO and our public health experts for action. Raising the drinking age to 20 and putting public controls on advertising are two important initial steps. A select committee hearing evidence can decide on other appropriate steps that will reduce the harm caused by irresponsible use of alcohol.

One of the most authoritative body of research available to us is that by Thomas Babor and our own public health experts Professor Sally Casswell and Dr Linda Hill. Their work is aptly entitled ”Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity.

They state:” In any jurisdiction alcohol policy serves two purposes: to enhance the benefits resulting from the use of beverage alcohol, and to contain and reduce alcohol-related harm.

Citizens have the right to assess and audit policies on health care provisions, education and, and crime prevention. They also deserve to know whether enacted alcohol policies are apt and well chosen. In an age of consumerism, it behoves policy-makers to ensure that alcohol, policies are fashioned with public health interest in mind.”

Parliament will now decide whether this bill takes the next step to a select committee for scrutiny and public input. I am hopeful that Parliamentarians will discharge their public duty and allow this bill to go forward so that we can “ ensure that alcohol policies are fashioned with public health interests in mind”

Let us strengthen the link between policy and science.

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