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Government Urged To Rethink Giving Free Reign To Online Alcohol Sales

Aotearoa New Zealand is facing a crisis of an extraordinary nature. Alcohol Healthwatch believes that all possible steps need to be taken to reduce pressures on our health system so we can address this emergency. This includes removing online alcohol sales from the list of essential businesses.

“There is a direct link between the level of alcohol use in our country and the level of accidental and self-inflicted injuries and other alcohol-related conditions that require medical or police assistance. We need to take active steps to reduce the availability of alcohol at this time, particularly to protect our mental health. It will pay dividends by increasing health equity” Dr Nicki Jackson, Executive Director of Alcohol Healthwatch said.

Since late March, online alcohol retailers have been listed as essential businesses, alongside those providing the necessities of life such as food, medicine, healthcare, energy, fuel, waste-removal, internet connectivity and financial support.

However, at 6:20pm yesterday the list of essential businesses was amended, restricting online sales to online-only businesses (section 40 endorsement under our liquor laws). “In effect, this meant that online sales were restricted to around a few hundred online businesses, and prevented hundreds and hundreds of physical bottle shops from selling online”, says Dr Jackson.

But late last night it appears the decision changed, and an almost free reign has now been given to online alcohol sales. Any off-licence can now sell online and are required to contact their local council.

Dr Jackson believes this is problematic. “The latest amended definition enables any off-licence to deliver alcohol to your door. Closing our physical bottle shops to prevent social contact has simply ended up opening the door to access alcohol from the comfort of your couch. At a time when public health and keeping otherwise healthy people out of hospital is our priority”.

Some online alcohol retailers are now waiving their usual delivery fees and requiring minimum purchases of large, harmful bulk quantities of alcohol. Demand is such that some major online sites are closing temporarily to deal with huge backlogs.

“This level of demand should signal that we don’t need to further open the doors to increase the accessibility of alcohol. Alcohol is a discretionary product. It is counterproductive for alcohol to be so widely available online while the health system is under huge stress, even before mass hospitalisations. This is at the same time as Government is reported as buying more than 200 ventilators in preparation for Covid-19 cases, extra intensive care capacity is being built, and family harm is a concern” says Dr Jackson.

Dr Jackson is urging the Government to consider further action to restrict alcohol availability. “It is important that the Government considers suspending online alcohol sales for the period of Level Four restrictions. Or at least consider putting a cap on the number of online sellers and implementing tighter limits on the amount of alcohol that can be purchased, as has occurred in Western Australia. In a time of minimum contact, the availability of beer, wine and cider from supermarkets and grocery stores should be considered sufficient for those who might be at risk from restricted access to alcohol.”

“Other evidence-based measures, such as addressing the price of cheap alcohol and restricting alcohol advertising would also help to curb alcohol harm. Our courier services should be delivering the necessities of life, and not delayed because they are delivering booze” says Dr Jackson.

Now is a crucial time to prioritise the mental health of New Zealanders and reduce stress on our frontline police, health and social services. Online access to New Zealand’s most harmful drug is non-essential, and comes with strong potential to cause health harm, particularly to children. This has immediate implications for all of us, and future generations.

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