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Robson: Speech on alcohol & drug laws

10 September 2005

Hon Matt Robson MP, Progressive Deputy Leader

Why this liberal doesn't want to liberalize alcohol & drug laws

Keynote speech at the Cutting Edge annual conference on alcohol, drug, and co-existing disorders, at The Dunedin Centre, 1 Harrop Street.

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me along to your very full three-day academic conference. Today I address not the drinking age, but the alcohol purchasing age.

During my nine years as a Parliamentarian, three in Cabinet, I guess it would be fair to say that I have been tagged as a liberal – a term that can cover a multitude of sins.

I've taken a very public position, for example, on issues relating to the inalienable rights of individuals. That is to say, I have been a public advocate for upholding universal human rights even if that hasn't always been the most popular position to take within the Labour-Progressive government.

I've taken also public positions on early intervention and advocated for the human and financial benefits of early intervention and integrated programmes, as an integral part of a wider integrated strategy that will obviously always include appropriate penalties, to help turn the tide against crime.

If liberal means paying attention to the evidence and preferring rational discussion to demagoguery, then I plead guilty to being a liberal.

I am campaigning for Progressive Party votes so that our party can continue to be represented at the Cabinet table and one of the most pressing issues I want the next Cabinet to address is the harm being caused to sometimes very young teenagers, that is children, from those that sell them alcohol at a profit.

In asking Parliamentarians to pay close attention to the findings of the scientific community on the effects of the misuse of alcohol, and the best ways to minimize that harm, I believe that I am acting in the best of liberal traditions.

Progressive, which on basic issues like the extent to which we would invest in public education and health services, and the extent to which we would go toward lowering financial barriers to what we regard as essential social services, is clearly to the Left-of-Labour.

Yet for some reason, and I admit to being floored by this, normally supportive allies in Labour and the Greens misrepresent my Youth Alcohol Harm Reduction Amendment Bill as "conservative" or some such adjective which isn't intended as a compliment and which simultaneously diverts attention from the real issues before us.

In this debate, the issues are firstly what is the empirical evidence that has come in from here and abroad when Parliaments have radically liberalized alcohol retailing laws and, secondly, what is the empirical evidence on the effect on young peoples' health from lowering the alcohol purchasing age (and conversely from overseas, what, if any, effect has been measured in societies that have subsequently done a u-turn and raised their alcohol purchasing age).

I won't go into the socialist traditions of my philosophical forebears who a century ago also, like Jim Anderton and myself, proposed policies that were unwelcome in the liquor industry quarters but were consistent with promoting the common good and the commonweal. I want policy based on evidence, not ideology.

The French scholar Pierre Bordieu wrote that societies would benefit greatly when politicians acted more like scholars. And that is so true in regard to the public health issues that confront us with the licensed drug alcohol.

When Parliament meets to consider other public health issues there is no retreat to the "conscience” vote.

Advice is taken, and usually heeded, from those professionals who are qualified to study the issues objectively using scientific method.

Parliamentarians shouldn't be allowed to indulge their traditional, cultural blind spot on this public health issue. We are not dealing with just another commodity on the supermarket shelves, but a powerful, mind-altering substance that can be used in a fun-loving and life-enhancing way or misused to terrible effect.

In 1999, liquor retailing was liberalized & purchase age reduced

When the 1999 Sale of Liquor Act was enacted, much of the public focus was on the purchase age.

However, a huge lobbying effort had been carried out, over an extensive period of time, by the liquor industry, to ensure that the sale of liquor was liberalized to make liquor available as close to 24/7 as possible.

The change to 24/7 availability of alcohol meant that Sunday was no longer to be a day of rest for the police or accident and emergency departments. Like the world after 9/11, New Zealand had changed.

MPs' were softened-up by lobbyists who also made sure that hospitality at sports and artistic events were liberally offered. Liberalisation was sold as being in tune with the “modern” age of choice and that any harm resulting from alcohol to young teenagers was now an "individual responsibility".

Heaven forbid that any connection should be made between aggressive marketing of alcohol with harmful consumption levels. Heaven forbid that it be thought that any meaningful and strong measures should be taken to reduce binge drinking by younger and younger drinkers.

Besides, argued the lobbyists, they were indifferent to whether the purchase age was 20 or 18 because, it was often said, the pre-1999 had so many loopholes that any self-respecting 18 or 19 year old could already buy alcohol without ado.

The public health advocates that said that lowering the alcohol purchasing age by two years would similarly lower by two years the age at which it becomes easy to purchase alcohol was lost on a majority of Parliamentarians.

The lobbyists surely knew very well that all their promised "education for responsible drinking" was laughable in a society where greatly increased availability of alcohol was to occur and their marketing budget would swamp the educational effort.

They also knew that in the competitive world of modern sport, every major sport would fall over themselves to get funding from the liquor industry for the dollars that that would bring. The Steinlager All Blacks are the scandal – not the new haka, Kapa O Pango.

We laugh at the Tui ads. And they are funny. But would we laugh so heartily if the company did not have the name of one of our favourite birds but was called the “extremely-harmful-if-misused drug company?"

Would we be so happy to have Speights as the Pride of the South if we learned that Southern Man was also liver-damaged man or responsible for the statistics of rising road fatalities of 15-19 year olds who consume Speights in dangerous quantities during and after the sports events that Speights, and other companies, so generously sponsor and identify with.

The lobbyists in 1999 knew that their strategists had lined up the youth market as the proud new market of financial opportunity.

Very high spirit-based alcoholic drinks, ready-made and available at scandalously low prices, were on the production line to bring more and more young boys and girls into the “glamorous" world of excessive consumption of alcohol – and cynically marketed as somehow "light spirits".

Light spirits? Hello? 22.9% alcohol-content "light spirits".

I'm hot on liquor lobbyists.

Last year I noticed this woman wandering around Parliament with an official Parliamentary card on her enabling her free access to Parliament and the Beehive, unlike normal citizens.

The lady, apparently a representative of the Beer, Wine and Spirits Council, had been issued this card on the authority of a former Speaker!

Needless to say, I made inquiries. The card, I am assured, has been handed in.

What is the data telling us?

Professor Langley from the Injury Prevention Research Unit here at Otago, together with colleagues from the University of Newcastle's School of Medical Practice and Population Health and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland, will next January publish their study in the impact of lowering the purchase age on traffic crash injuries among 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19 year olds in New Zealand.

The report, to be published at the American Journal of Public Health, concludes that there were significantly more alcohol-involved crashes among 15-19 year olds than would have occurred had the purchase age not been reduced to 18 and that the size of the effect for 18-19 year olds is remarkable given the poor enforcement of the pre-1999 law. There were large 'trickle-down' effects for 15-17 year olds.

The research paper also estimates that if the purchase age were returned to 20 years, 'an annual saving of over 400 injury hospitalisations and 12 fatalities among 15-19 year olds from road traffic crashes alone' would be expected.

The research is the latest and most significant done since the age was lowered and its findings are consistent with overseas research in other societies that have lowered their purchasing age - or, as in the case of Canada and the United States, done u-turns to re-raise their purchasing ages and to reap the public health benefits of their evidence-based u-turns.

Massey University professor Sally Casswell is also poised to publish a major study of the law change's impact after it is peer-reviewed, but I know Professor Casswell has been reported to say that the research won't be good news for those of us wanting to see alcohol-related harm to teenagers reduced.

We know that Transport Ministry figures show that since 18-year-olds have been allowed to drink, a dramatic decline in fatal car accidents involving drink and young drivers, which occurred throughout the 1990s, has been reversed.

GALA, the Group Against Liquor Advertising, estimates that teenagers in the 14 – 17 year old age group drink $140 million of alcohol per year.

The sting operations by police throughout New Zealand suggest that GALA may be being too conservative.

70% of licensed liquor retailers surveyed in Hamilton last week were found to sell alcohol to 16 and 17 year olds without question. Two volunteers aged 16 and 17 went into 32 licensed premises in the city during Operation Scramble and they successfully bought alcohol in 22 of them. Inspector Wayne Ewers was disgusted by the results. "We're very disappointed," he said. "In some cases there was no hesitation and stores seemed more interested in making the cash sale."

Progressive secured Budget 2005 funding to increase the resources of the alcohol patrol officers, because we need more information, but I can report to you that the Hamilton data – as shocking as it is – has been replicated elsewhere – from Opotiki to Dunedin and West Auckland.

In Taupo, five outlets out of 11 sold alcohol to a 17 year old. Police Sergeant James McGrogan described that result as ‘very disappointing’, noting that four outlets did not even ask the young woman her age nor for ID. This is despite liquor outlets being given written advance warning of the operation.

In Nelson and the Tasman district 20 outlets were visited, resulting in 10 being prosecuted. Outlets’ licences were suspended for a maximum of three days, and some people had their managers’ certificates managers suspended for a fortnight.

The news was better in a followup operation three weeks ago. A 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl were refused purchase by 18 outlets including bottle stores, convenience stores, supermarkets and a club. One supermarket did sell them alcohol and is to be prosecuted. Police sergeant Mike Fitzsimons said he was happy with the operation, a vast improvement on the earlier sting.

In neighbouring Waimea a week later, only two out of 11 stores sold to a 17 year old, but one of those was a repeat offender.

The Nelson and Waimea results were a vast improvement on a November sting which saw 10 out of 20 stores sell alcohol to minors. Sergeatn Fitzsimons said they would be telling the 18 outlets that he was happy with what they've done.

On the North Shore, over 25% of outlets sold to two 15 year old girls. They were specifically told to carry no identification, and not to wear make-up or clothes that made them look older. Constable Bryce Law says because of those results, he will conduct the operation more often.

And across the harbour in Auckland City, a 16 and 17-year-old were sent into 70 stores across the city to buy alcohol. Staff at 31 of those stores - 45% - either failed to ask questions about age or did not request identification. Geoff Atherfold of the Auckland District Licensing Agency says the results led to licence suspension at the offending premises.

In Opotiki, nearly every outlet sold to minors. Eight out of nine sold to two volunteers, aged 16 and 17. Only one asked for ID or even asked their age. These outlets got off with a warning and a promise of prosecution ‘next time.’

In Palmerston North, six out of 12 outlets sold to a 16- and 17- year old. There, Police are also taking controlled purchase operations into bars and other licensed premises. Senior Sergeant Murray Drummond said "My intention is to do it more frequently all through the year - it will be ongoing."

In a glimmer of light, following the Hamilton operation, local MP Martin Gallagher was shocked by the results. He said "I opposed the lowering of the drinking age at the time and was a strong supporter of Matt Robson's private member's bill to look at raising the age back to 20," he said.

That is significant because he chairs the Lw and Order select committee which is examining my bill. He went on to say: “When we return to Parliament, the law and order select committee will be looking at not only raising the drinking age but also enforcement. There needs to be strong disincentives to sell alcohol to minors.”

Finally, good news from the Hutt Valley, where four weeks ago Police sent 14 and 16-year-old volunteers into 25 liquor outlets, including dairies, groceries and bottle stores. Not one outlet sold alcohol.

Jim Anderton in Christchurch, and I in Wellington, have joined the late night liquor licensing patrol.

I am all for fun. I cherish the thought of my teenagers enjoying a world full of opportunity and more liberal than the Big Dry of Australia where I grew up in another age.

But I fear for all young teenagers today where they are blitzed by multi million dollar marketing which confuses fun with pain, confuses good health with bad health.

The hundreds of intoxicated teenagers below 18 picked up in our streets every school week by the Police is, for me, a rally call to protective action by Parliament.

After a year of promoting my Bill, I can't tell you how exhausted and sick I am of hearing politicians, and the liquor industry, that say "raising the purchase age won't fix the problem".

It is disingenuous propaganda to set up a strawman before slaying it. Of course there is no "One Answer".

There is no simple solution and there will always be the need for integrated steps across supply, demand, education and treatment all working hand-in-hand and the issue of the alcohol purchase age is a critical ingredient in a much bigger jigsaw.

My Bill, which is currently before the Law and Order Select Committee, proposes to raise the alcohol purchasing age to twenty (that is the age you can walk into you local corner licensed dairy and buy alcohol), it proposes to keep liquor adverts off television until 10 p.m. and it proposes also to strengthen provisions within the law to prosecute those caught inappropriately supply liquor to minors.

In 1999, Jim Anderton and I supported the philosophic principle that eighteen years olds should be legally entitled to drink alcohol and that was the position of our party but our MPs voted against the final or third reading of law change because we feared that its overall provision for more liberal alcohol purchasing standards would deliver negative social outcomes.

We are not talking about the "drinking age".

I believe that raising the alcohol purchasing age would encourage more responsible social drinking habits.

The aim is to get parents and guardians teaching their young teenagers how to enjoy alcohol at the family dinner table and to enjoy the life-enhancing aspects that a lovely cold beer can give you after a hard Bursary exam or a set back from a friend or on the sport field.

Understanding adults assist teenagers to adjust to growing up and adjust to living in a society where mind-altering substances, and body-hurting substances, are liberally available.

This is a question not of simple morality or a table-thumping.

This isn't an issue about your sixteen year old or mine having a beer with dad and mum at the family dinner table – I'd be the first to pour my 16 year old a beer over dinner.

It is about accepting the empirical evidence that the law changes of the late 1980s and late 1990s in fact facilitated increased access to alcohol for younger and younger teenagers in an environment that isn't the best for young teenagers and children – the licensed corner dairy – and the drinking environment, groups of very young teenagers in the local park or parking lot.

For me, the most fundamental function of a Member of Parliament is to promote laws and standards that enhance the safety and well being of the community and of families, and of course that includes the most vulnerable among us – young teenagers as well as their worrying parents.

The reason I am so proud that my Bill has made it as far as the Select Committee, in spite of those MPs from this city that voted against it going there, is that the Bill provides a forum where the general public with all of its view points can be listened to respectfully and where those that have access to, and have conducted primary research, that is empirical research not political rhetoric, can be heard.

I am a politician.

I know that the reality of politics is that unless the Progressive Party gets 1.3% of the Party Vote or whatever it is that we need to ensure I'm returned to Parliament, my Bill will be most likely be killed in its tracks.

My Bill hangs in the balance. And its personal, I'm a parent and I like most members of the public want to have their say on how has happened – in teenage traffic accident statistics, in the transmission of teenage sexual disease and so forth – since 1999, and how we might together do something or some things positive to help turn the tide against those tragic self-inflicted trends.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you as your conference and I am very happy to answer any questions that you may have of me.


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