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Reason, not rhetoric on the sale of liquor

News Media Opinion Piece
10 July 2000

765 words

Reason, not rhetoric on the sale of liquor

By Beer, Wine & Spirits Council Chief Executive, Nicki Stewart.

* * * * *

“It’s only one symptom of a high degree of crisis among young people.”

Amidst the somewhat predictable cries of concern that coincided with the six-month anniversary of the Sale of Liquor Amendment Act, it was heartening to see the Minister of Youth Affairs demonstrating a laudable degree of perspective on the issue of youth drinking.

Legislation, as Laila Harré correctly observes, is not the route to addressing issues related to youth drinking. For her, excesses of any sort by today’s youth have a myriad of often inter-connected causes, from boredom, to uncertain work prospects.

Others, unfortunately, still hold a more simplistic – and ultimately misplaced – view of events, blaming the legal drinking age.

Their single-minded focus on the legal drinking age diverts debate from the real causes of excess consumption by a small minority of young New Zealanders. In the process, critics of the Sale of Liquor Amendment Act also distort the facts.

Let’s look first, at those facts.

Over the past four years the number of alcohol-related offences committed by minors declined by around seven percent, from 3,885 in 1996 to 3,671 in 1999. During that time, the level of offending rose as high as 4,480 (in 1998) and as low as 3,258 (in 1997). Such year-on-year variability makes a mockery of claims by critics of increased youth drinking since the passing of the bill – even if the facts supported their claim of an increase.

Contrary to the claims of the Act’s critics – the incidents of young people abusing alcohol are relatively isolated. This is supported by the Police, who report little, if any, change to problem youth drinking.

This is hardly surprising.

New Zealand’s social history over the past half century reveals an inverse relationship between the degree of government control over alcoholic beverages and the responsibility New Zealanders display with those beverages.

The excesses of prohibition and its successor, the six o’clock swill, are just two such examples.

By contrast, the 1989 Sale of Liquor Act, in reducing government intervention in the sale of liquor, has had the opposite result. Rather than an often “no holds barred” attitude to alcohol consumption of the past, we have a burgeoning and sophisticated café-environment consumption of alcohol.

Demystified, alcohol has been normalised. And in the process of its normalisation, New Zealanders are fundamentally reassessing its place and use in society.

No longer are alcoholic beverages a form of forbidden fruit but a part of everyday life.

As normal as having a drink at the age of 18 or 19.

New Zealanders are rejecting the legislative prescription of when, where and how they should responsibly enjoy alcoholic beverages – the high tide of which was prohibition. Instead they are welcoming a more rational, informed and mature approach.

New Zealanders realise that the state has relatively limited powers to affect the attitudes of young people. It simply does not, in the absence of prohibition, have the power to amend or control social behaviour.

Instead, family and societal norms have by far the biggest influence over when, and how, our young people consume alcoholic beverages.

America’s Roper Report (1996) showed just how significant parenting is in the development of attitudes to alcohol consumption. Among the six things that affect American youth’s decisions about drinking, 62% in the 12 to 17 age group identify their parents as a leading influence. This is followed by friends (28%), teachers (9%), television (7%) and advertising (4%).

As the American study shows, the real power lies with the family and with education.

Rather than blaming legislation for alcohol abuse, a more effective approach to reduce alcohol abuse is to form partnerships with organisations and develop programmes and resources to help educate young people about consuming alcoholic beverages responsibly.

That is what the Council is doing, for example, one of our projects involves working with the Christchurch College of Education to implement an education programme targeted at high school students.

With any education campaign, it is important to recognise the role young people can play in educating their peers. In fact, the majority of young people drink responsibly and are among the strongest proponents of the moderation message.

If we want to reduce alcohol abuse, New Zealand can’t afford to be sidetracked, by those that would use any opportunity, including the six month anniversary of amendments to the Sale of Liquor Act, to grandstand for law changes, rather than support targeted and effective education.

We need to work together to educate young people how to drink responsibly.


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