By Iain Lees-Galloway
Last week parliament voted to keep the alcohol purchase age at 18. After three years of debate, lobbying from all sides, floods of emails and impassioned speeches by MPs we ended up precisely where we started - with the purchase age for both on and off licenses remaining at the lowest of the three options put before us.
Although 18 wasn't my first preference (I argued in favour of the split age) I wasn't overly disappointed that the age remained unchanged. That's because of all the measures that have been proposed as possible ways to address alcohol related harm, changing the purchase age is the least significant. There simply is not enough evidence to suggest it would have made a difference and it was hard to justify removing a right that was given to 18 and 19 year olds without a strong indication that doing so would have had the impact we are looking for.
What does concern me is the amount of attention that aspect of the Alcohol Reform Bill has received from the media, the public and politicians. There was certainly a danger that, had MPs voted to increase the purchase age, there would have been a perception that our work was done.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The real work lies ahead of us. The Bill as it is currently drafted is too weak to have any effect on the harm that is caused by alcohol. It is the usual politically motivated, poll-driven nonsense we have come to expect from the Key administration. Worse, Justice Minister Judith Collins has tabled amendments that will dilute the Bill to the point that it is barely worth passing. It is a source of great personal frustration that if the Government gets its way, a future government will undoubtedly have to revisit the issue yet again.
There isn't much in the bill that I would change. It's what isn't in the bill that is the problem. The Government has lacked the intestinal fortitude required to follow an evidence-based approach and support measures that may not be universally popular but are proven to make a difference.
So what works? Lowering the drink drive limit from 0.08 to 0.05 is not only appropriate because the evidence tells us that driving over the lower limit is dangerous, but it also sends a signal that two drinks is the absolute maximum you should have before you drive, and not drinking at all is preferable. That has an impact on drinking culture. Ironically, the Government has recently signalled amendments to maritime law in the wake of the Rena disaster that will set a limit of 0.05 at sea because that is international best practice.
Advertising and sponsorship need to be examined closely. Banning advertising is a step too far, but there is no need for our kids to be bombarded with messages that alcohol must accompany all adult social situations. There are some things we can do now- such as making sure the area immediately around schools and kids films at the cinema are free of alcohol advertising - and there are other matters that need to be considered further alongside full consultation.
Perhaps annoyingly, some of the strongest evidence supports using price increases to reduce alcohol consumption. There is a few ways we could achieve this but minimum pricing is probably the fairest way. That targets the very cheap alcohol that is designed only to get you drunk and limits the supermarkets' ability to use alcohol as a loss leader while leaving the price of most products, particularly those purchased at on-licenses, untouched.
There is a range of further measures that need to be added to the Alcohol Reform Bill if it is to live up to its lofty title. Several opposition MPs have proposed amendments that will strengthen the bill and I hope that all MPs - including National MPs - will give them serious consideration. As a member of the Health Select Committee I know there are several members of the National caucus who would support that approach if they were free to do so.
Let's hope that the same energy that was applied to debating the purchase age will be on show when it comes time to cast our votes on the remaining, substantive parts of this legislation.