Alcohol Laws in New Zealand - TOP

During our research into the extent of harm from cannabis prohibition that we published last week, we uncovered alarming data on harm from alcohol. And of course it is legal, and its regulation has been relaxed over the last decade or two. The question is whether we have become too liberal with our alcohol laws. Certainly compared with what we recommended for cannabis that seems to be the case. 

The sources of harm are very different to that from cannabis, where harm arising from the role of the criminal underworld and from processing users through the criminal justice system dominates. For alcohol, the harm relates to violence, accidents and anti-social activity that arise from drunk behaviour in public places and in the home. Injury costs make up ¼ of the total costs from all drug use, and alcohol makes up the vast majority (82%) of these injury costs.

Lower productivity on the job is also a major impact for all kinds of drugs.

What’s most telling is just how much greater such harm from alcohol use is compared to all other drugs. According to a study done back in 2005 alcohol is 3 times as harmful to our society as all other drugs put together.[1]

If we update the data into modern values, the harm from alcohol is estimated at over $6 billion per year. This can be compared with more recent estimates of harm from other drugs, which have a total cost under $2 billion. Of that, cannabis harm makes up around $1.3 billion and amphetamines at around $400 million. All together alcohol generates around 4.5 times the harm of the next most frequently used drug, cannabis.

This level of harm is mainly due to the sheer numbers of harmful alcohol users (over half a million), which dwarf the total dependent cannabis users (26,000) and P (1,400) users.

According to international estimates[2] some 50% of the costs associated with alcohol are avoidable through stricter regulation. In 2005 the Drug Foundation, followed by the Law Commission in 2010, deemed the relaxation of alcohol laws of 1999 a failure and recommended that the harm from alcohol had to be confronted by two main measures:

(a)  raising the age for purchase of alcohol back to 20 years old

(b)  raising the price of alcohol

Both these recommendations were ignored by the 2012 Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act which merely puts some limits on alcohol advertising and required parents to give express consent for their underage children to drink.

So the question is should we revisit our alcohol laws?

(1) Raising the age of purchase

 Since the relaxation of alcohol laws in 1999 there is good evidence of the ‘halo effect’; that teens are starting to drink even earlier;

  • There was a significant increase in hospital presentations of intoxicated people aged under 20;
  • There have been increases in the trends for rates of prosecutions for excess breath alcohol, road traffic crashes involving alcohol, and fatal road traffic crashes involving alcohol among several youth cohorts in the years after 1999;
  • The increase in alcohol-related crashes among 15 to 19 year olds was higher relative to older age groups in the four years following the law change, and the higher rate of increase in road traffic crashes among the younger age group has continued since. [3]

It is important to say that we don’t know for sure whether raising the alcohol age would reduce underage drinking and reverse these impacts. However, it seems reasonable to expect some reduction in harm, particularly since the harm from alcohol is centred amongst young people.

That’s why we are asking what you think!

(2) Increasing the Excise Tax

A 50% increase in the alcohol excise tax (as recommended by Palmer) would result in a 10% price increase on average. Currently different alcohols are taxed at different rates (a policy that favours wine and to a lesser extent beer over spirits). It would make sense to smooth this out at the same time, so some prices will increase by more than others.

We expect that a 10% price increase would decrease demand for alcohol by around 5%.[4] Again it is an inexact science about how much this would reduce the overall harm, and of course this analysis doesn’t take into account the social benefits that some people think they get from alcohol. However, as a ball park figure, a 5% reduction in alcohol harm would be worth around $300m to society.

Of course raising the tax also means more money for the Government coffers. Assuming the tax collect on alcohol excise is roughly $712m[5] that would mean an increase in tax revenue of around $300m. This money could be used to augment the solutions put forward in our cannabis policy, essentially promoting education and treatment for all drugs as well as after school activities for teenagers. In fact, given the investment in these areas from cannabis reform, there would be a significant sum left over, which we would want to invest in a boost for mental health funding more broadly.

So reducing harm from alcohol consumption is still very much a live issue in New Zealand. The Opportunities Party is working up a policy response.

Follow the link here and let us know how you feel about the current law and what, if any, changes you would make. 


Showing 81 reactions

  • catherine OSullivan
    commented 2017-05-27 18:44:05 +1200
    Proud to be a part of TOP given the enlightened way TOP has engaged and looked at Cannabis reform. Could go further as time goes by as well. Alcohol has been the elephant in the room for sometime now. Alcohol needs to be treated with the same pariah social engagement that cigarettes have enjoyed. Cannabis needs the reverse of this treatment. The lonely smoker out in the cold doesn’t enjoy the social inclusion it once had. The ease of contaminating a drink in a public place as well should be highlighted in such a campaign. Alcohol should not enjoy the sponsorship and advertising freedom it currently enjoys. Since 1985 we have eased laws incredibly on alcohol advertising: previous to this we had some 27 associated laws. The lifting of the age of drinking alcohol could be useful but I suspect not a change maker. Its hard to tackle this beast. The waste of human endeavour is breathtaking with this liquid. It lays communities thread bare without a cohesive link to sweep its bastard influence out the back door… Devils food.

    Emotionally exhausting as a subject for everyone. It touches everyone.
  • Paulus Jacobus
    commented 2017-05-27 16:09:54 +1200
    While I don’t dispute that some form of action is needed when it comes to alcohol I wonder if this is the time and place to upset the masses. I think the focus currently should be on educating everyone about TOP’s arrival and the policy so that TOP actually has a shot at parliament. The lack of media attention is frustrating but proves to illustrate yhe bias towards national. In my opinion a much more aggressive approach marketing wise is needed. By all means once established then but the cat amongst the pigeons.
  • Mark Higham
    commented 2017-05-27 14:26:01 +1200
    Our binge drinking culture is entrenched . While the deep thinkers waffle on about education and turning us into European wannabes just put the age back up to 20. It will protect some our young until their judgement is a bit better. Alcohol is heavily taxed already, I say leave the tax alone.
  • Jaimini Hatchard
    commented 2017-05-27 13:39:53 +1200 Iceland would be a great model to follow very much aligned with TOPs evidence based approach to policy making. Raising the drinking age is a watered down version of prohibition and really is just tinkering, changing the drinking culture should be the goal which could include refining tax take and expenditure but absolutely must address the reasons young people binge drink and take drugs in the first place.
  • Chris Rayner
    commented 2017-05-27 12:09:46 +1200
    It HAS to be about Education & Education that starts in the home, and becomes part of the fabric of society ! To simply apply draconian measures of raising the age or the price does nothing to actually address the issue but simply tries to control or limit peoples ability to learn how to responsibly consume and enjoy alcohol. Compare Europe with the USA for a minute, UE Low drinking age ( you can buy beer and wine at 16 years old in many EU countries ) and low price for quality alcohol, Then you take America where the drinking age is 21 & alcohol is relatively expensive and of a poor quality. Now where has the larger Binge drinking problem ….. you got it its AMERICA !!!

    Actually almost every English speaking country ( UK, US, Canada, Australia, Ireland & NZ ) has more of Binge drinking culture, and higher levels of social harm from Alcohol when compared to European countries, raising the price of alcohol or the legal drinking age has done NOTHING to stop or curb this pattern, Prohibition or limitations on supply is not the answer and this has been proven many times over !

    It will only cost you votes and limit your chances of getting into parliament where you might have a real and effective voice to help shape public policy, but a poorly considered reactionary alcohol policy will surely keep you out of Parliament and put at risk all your other good policies. Remember Alcohol has been around for hundreds of years, it kept our drinking water safe, and the secrets of fermentation were kept safe by the monastery’s of Europe.

    Do not under estimate the role alcohol plays in society both for good and bad. If you were to take your statistics of harm caused by each substance and divide them by the total quantity consumed of each substance you would see that alcohol is on par with most other substances but because it is consumed by so many people on such a large scale the overall rate for alcohol looks higher, your comparisons are unscientific and not truly ‘evidenced based’

    Almost all my European friends started drinking around age 8 or 9 with their parents at home or special family occasions then when they were 14 or so their parents would buy them a six pack or bottle of wine for the weekend if they had done all the their homework and household chores. By age 16 they were able to buy beer or wine at the shops, they had been shown by their parents how to drink responsibly, there was no need or desire to get so smashed you throw up, because for them that would be a waste of good beer or wine, compare that to my growing up in NZ where my older brothers would buy us crap alcohol behind our parents back and we thought the point was to drink as much as possible. There needs to be a shift in drinking culture in our society we teach kids responsible sex education but seems to be nothing about responsible drinking education.
  • Sam Peter
    commented 2017-05-27 10:53:46 +1200
    I don’t think the university students that TOP presented to in Wellington would support a raise in the drinking age. Stronger education about safe alcohol use and an attempt to shift culture would be more effective. If TOP is successful in putting in place a fair tax system and UBI, the rates of alcohol abuse/injury could decrease in line with the decrease in poverty anyway.
  • Josie Amon
    commented 2017-05-27 07:55:26 +1200
    There are no easy answers but it’s encouraging that people are thinking about this and possible solutions to the problem. And that may be part of the answer. If people feel more engaged with life around them they won’t be inclined to opt out into a drunken stupor. And yes, weed is the better option but only if we can convince our youth to wait until their brain has developed. I have seen the result of early weed use and it appears to me it is a demotivator and has a lasting effect.
  • Phillip Lee
    commented 2017-05-27 07:49:08 +1200
    It is apparent we know the cost that alcohol has on society. All alcohol drinkers responsible or otherwise and those that profit should be paying for it and not dumping the harm onto society and other taxpayers. Why is it that the argument is for only a consumption tax when a producer tax will be just as effective and easier to implement. The only reason I can think that the cost is a taxpayer burden and not an industry burden is some relationship that the alcohol industry has with government. The more harm done the higher the payment the alcohol industry pays. If they become responsible and harm is reduce the tax burden is reduced so the industry has a true motivation to do something when it cuts into their income. It will be amazing to see how innovative the alcohol industry would be if the harm on society was a cost to them which it should be. The whole cost from support of families and children with fetal alcohol syndrome for a lifetime through to A&E, to police, judicial, prisons, mental health. Any social service required for a civilised society that cares for the weakest attributable to alcohol.
  • Ulli Weissbach
    commented 2017-05-27 05:30:38 +1200
    Susanne has a good point. Other cultures prove that you don’t need to binge drink if you want to have fun. Look at most continental European cultures. In Italy or France it’s perfectly OK to have a glass of wine (or two) with a meal, even lunch on a work day, out of office. And that’s it. They have an educated drinking culture since hundreds of years. But not the English with their 6 o’clock swill. Their binge drinking genes are deeply embedded in Kiwi culture. And Kiwis know it. One of my experiences as a “continental” European migrant to NZ is that Kiwis are very much aware of their binge weakness. Whenever I ask a male Kiwi friend if we could meet for a spontaneous beer on a work day, they decline. “Have to work tomorrow”, is the usual excuse, as if they knew, they couldn’t restrain themselves to one or two beers. How strange is that? As I say: it’s in the genes.
  • Susanne galler
    commented 2017-05-27 00:36:43 +1200
    For some years I have worked with international students in NZ. It has been interesting to watch the reactions of Saudi Arabian students to the alcohol culture as it exists among NZ’s young people. Saudi men are usually very sociable, love to sind and dance and often go out to nightclubs with friends. They drink caffeinated drinks, unfortunately for them. Of course they are appreciated as sober drivers! They report their surprise at how people waste money then can’t afford to waste, can’t remember what happened, do and say things they regret, vomit and don’t seem to have as much fun as the non drinkers.
    Binge drinking has not always been our way, has it? Or did the 6 o’clock swill teach us that?

    Another anecdotal story is that of a friend who moved from NZ to Oman with her twin sons who had just turned 18 and had just entered our binge drinking youth culture. The wake up observation came on their first evening at a huge outdoor restaurant with an enormous crowd of men going wild over a football match while sipping Coke and tea.
    I’m not suggesting Sharia law but it woukd be worth surveying our Muslim community for their Input.

    Life is still fun and lively without alcohol but I find to my embarrassment that I have also absorbed the Kiwi notion that I need a glass of Wine if I am going to enjoy an event. This shows up when you are living in a different culture as I am now in Ecuador. Alcohol is freely available here, just not a Must. Why and when did we get like this?
  • Rachel Coates
    commented 2017-05-26 23:52:24 +1200
    A legal adult can vote, have a family etc and not enjoy a glass of wine? Raising the drinking age would mean that 18/19 year olds couldn’t even go out for a meal at a restaurant with their friends where more sensible attitudes towards drinking are demonstrated than what you would see at a bar or a house party. If they can’t go out to a restaurant or go out to a club they’ll just drink in private residence where if something does go wrong, help is less accessible.

    If anything the drinking age should be lowered because teenagers do and will continue to drink underage regardless of the legal age. If the legal age was lowered, teenagers would not have to conceal their drinking from parents. They would be able to learn their limits and make their mistakes that they’re going to make regardless without the fear that they can’t reach out to their parents for help if something does go wrong. By 20 most children have left their family home, they’d suddenly have complete freedom to buy alcohol and zero supervision.

    This is a cultural issue that cannot be solved on economic or legal grounds. We need to encourage positive drinking culture, through supervising drinking rather than forbidding it, making demonstrations of sensible drinking culture accessible to young people.
  • Ryan Craig
    commented 2017-05-26 23:28:26 +1200
    Hey to whom it may concern I’m a 21yo male brought up in the mist of New Zealand and it’s crazy lifestyle. I just want to say at my age there is a crazy binge drinking culture like when my friends turned 18 they would go out Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and then be back at school on Monday. Same goes at university though even if you had an exam the next day you could easily be persuaded into getting drunk with your flat mates. The problem is everyone being ok with it. Like I could go to town sober have joint in the corner and have a fucking great time listening to music and catching up with friends. But my mate has been at the bar since he finished work with a couple mates just going drink for drink, then gets to the point where he’s blackout drunk vomiting over himself but that’s fine because it’s legal and society doesn’t look down on people that drink. Yet the guy that’s had a joint just talking to his friends not rolling around on the floor, is a loner stoner that needs to sort his life because weeds bad. Idk could just be where Iv been brought up but in general young New Zealanders have a drinking problem but no ones worrying about it because it’s legal.
  • Rachel McLaren
    commented 2017-05-26 22:31:29 +1200
    Higher ages don’t work. Countries with low drinking ages have similar or less alcohol abuse. We need positive alternatives to alcohol instead (see the likes of Finland & their funding of extra-curricular activities for youth, and weed could be a healthier alternative for adults than drinking).

    I’d put a stop to the advertising of alcohol, and more public health initiatives aimed at encouraging people to reduce their intake.
  • Malcolm Laird
    commented 2017-05-26 22:26:16 +1200
    My understanding is that Jeffery Palmer led a review of Alcohol Laws fairly recently, but these were generally not acted on. They should be.
    I would like;
    - Purchase age back to 20,
    - No booze sold in Dairies or Supermarkets.
  • Karen Doyle
    commented 2017-05-26 22:05:22 +1200
    ………And tax it hard!!!
  • Karen Doyle
    commented 2017-05-26 22:01:32 +1200
    Take out of supermarkets
    Reduce license hours
    Increase legal age
    Education re all the harm and havoc it causes especially to the young.
    Educate young women. ..the Mother’s of tomorrow re the harm.
    Get rid of it from sport!!!!!
  • Renee G
    commented 2017-05-26 20:19:17 +1200
    There are plenty of rich drunks out there, so I don’t think raising the price would do a whole lot. It’s all about the culture and our mindsets around alcohol. How do we change that, and how could we reward responsible drinking? Just like children, maybe we need positive reinforcements for doing the right thing?
  • Peter Geerlings
    commented 2017-05-26 19:27:52 +1200
    In NZ we are borrowing to much and we will find it difficult to pay all that money back (Plus interest).
    The current fix seems to be more people/cars/traffic (more tax payers) is this the best policy ?
    My approach would start with an “healty” food supply, reintroduce powerful home remedies as an alternative (do no harm) medical treatments and prevention !
    De Centralise (like Switzerland) in smaller communities people are more likely to be givers ! And have lots of referendums !
    Bring back the a balanced news media ! Wow we wouldn’t recognise ourselves ! A life of luxury and lots more free time !

    Peter Geerlings
  • Mr. Sandy Fontwit
    commented 2017-05-26 18:32:54 +1200
    I’m amazed at the depth that alcohol drinking permeates NZ culture. There is an implicit and explicit assumption that every social occasion, from a day in the park to going to a movie or concert will be enhanced by “having a drink”. Practically every advert for social activities includes some reference to drinking alcohol, so its NOT just sports being sponsored by alcohol companies, its Opera In the Park talking about “enjoying a wine with your friends”. The assumption is you can’t have a good time without having your consciousness altered.
    Similarly, there’s a connection with sex and teens. Many teens are so uptight about sex (and face to face relationships not mediated by electronic media), that they have to get drunk to have sex (or to “have fun” with their friends). With sex, its both a way of not taking responsibility (I was so drunk that sex just happened to me), and a way of getting around all the potential anxiety of actually being your true self in front of others. I’m coming from having worked with teenaged boys so I know what I’m talking about.
    Changing this level of culture takes a long time and it needs to happen both in the schools and in the home. It also takes adults “calling out” other adults who behave badly when drinking, NOT enabling bad behavior. It also means having a country of adults who are mature enough emotionally to not need to mediate their social interactions with drugs, which includes alcohol.
  • Tom Southall
    commented 2017-05-26 18:25:03 +1200
    I do not think that greater restrictions need be in place regarding alcohol. I think that the benefits to our society resulting from the rest of TOP’s policies will take care of these issues as a side effect.
  • Paul O'Donnell
    commented 2017-05-26 18:08:55 +1200
    The survey was pointless, it was very leading, contained no area for alternatives or explanations, just lazy.
  • Libby Giles
    commented 2017-05-26 17:57:26 +1200
    I also support policies that reduce poverty and inequality. Policies that provide quality holistic education. Perhaps if we can address some of these basic human needs we might get somewhere. My views about drug and alcohol law reform are not in isolation.
  • Alexei Gladkikh
    commented 2017-05-26 17:49:57 +1200
    I want to point out that proposing is one more tax on poor. An increase in prices will have NO EFFECT on consumption of alcohol by rich or even middle class. On another hand, it will take big % of income from poor. Add to that tax on tobacco, proposed tax on sugar, a possible tax on cannabis. All this are taxes on the form of entertainment used by poor, because (surprise) they are the most money efficient form of it.

    It is much cheaper to get drunk, smoke cigars or cannabis then go to the cinema, or go dancing, or go skiing or even go drink coffee with friends in caffer. You do not need to spend money on transport if you even have access to a car.
    Effect last much longer and let you escape from fact that you can not affort to buy anything. Real roots of alcoholism, smoking or any drug use is growing helplessness of bigger and bigger part of the population. There many more poor people who smoke, then rich. The other indication of this trend is huge suicide rates in NZ. Don’t we like lead the world in young suicides?

    If you proposing to implement punishing taxes on poor, why not implement punishing taxes on rich? I give you examples, Tax on any form of speculation. You have to admit that they play no positive roles in the economy. Speculation is a simple robbery of consumer and producers by the middle man. If we want to punish undesirable behaviour, let’s punish undesirable economic behaviour. I am sure it will have a much bigger positive effect.

    Give you the other example. Let’s implement a drastic progressive tax on any form of assets over $10 mil. Even at 1%, it is 100 000$ year, more than 95% New Zealanders make. There no economic or moral reason to give control of that much money into a single hand. This kind of money gives you all you might need in life for all life. One has to be a psychopath if you want to have more money. The only thin which more $10 mil give is the ability to dominate people, ability to have servants. It is simply sick and would you agree that suck sick behaviour should be punished?
  • Libby Giles
    commented 2017-05-26 17:42:09 +1200
    I support your drug and alcohol law reform proposals wholeheartedly. I would take the alcohol policy reforms further, along the lines of the 5+ solutions following the Law Commission’s 2010 paper, ‘Alcohol in our Lives: Curbing the Harm’.
    Raise prices
    Raise purchasing age
    Reduce accessibility (e.g. supermarkets)
    Reduce or ban advertising
    end legal drink driving

    I would go further to require labelling – pictures even. Drunkenness needs to be stigmatised like smoking has been. This is nothing to do with being a wowser, simply about reducing harm and being honest about what alcohol is – a mind altering drug with numerous harmful physical and psychological effects. It’s high time for a rational discussion, good policy and the end of the double standard. Measures to reduce harm will not interfere with any sensible consumer’s freedom.
  • Tom Crawford
    commented 2017-05-26 17:37:15 +1200
    I would argue that this policy only seeks to reduce some harm from alcohol, the harm from alcohol can’t be eliminated and as this policy states the estimate is only a 5% reduction in demand. What I think would be better would be bringing about the community licensing system nation wide.

    By having the sale of alcohol controlled by the community owned commercial operations there is a double bottom line of both social and financial returns. Not having alcohol in supermarkets will mean children shopping with their parents will have less exposure to alcohol marketing, this along with other measures can decrease the demand for alcohol, thereby reducing harm.

    With profits from alcohol going back to the community significant parts of the remaining harm can be offset with benefits to the community. The money is not insignificant either, in Invercargill for example the ILT has been able to pay for state of the arts sporting facilities including a stadium, velodrome, indoor swimming complex, advanced technology for local schools, tertiary scholarships, community grants etc etc. Even small communities like those under the Mataura licencing trust have been able to benefit from a very impressive indoor ice skating and swimming complex.

    TLDR; community licensing trusts are better because 1 – community control 2 – reduced exposure, demand and harm 3 – remaining harm is offset 4 – profits going back to the community.
  • Terence O'Loan
    commented 2017-05-26 17:36:16 +1200
    The only way to overcome the drug problem is to remove the profit motive so that it is no longer economical to push drugs.
    The police have recently admitted they are losing the war on drugs just as all countries are.
    this can only happen if drugs are legalised and supply is taken over by the Government, and sold at a very low price and in limited amounts i.e one or two days supply at a time and only to registered users.
    There would have to be severe penalties for anyone trying to export drugs. obviously importing drugs would be pointless.
    This would mean we have to go back to making people responsible for their own actions.
    If you overdose and require medical treatment you pay. No pay no treatment. Why should the taxpayer pay out huge amounts of money so that you can abuse your body and then expect someone else to pick up the tab.
    I am sure insurance companies will come up with some sort of policy to cover this and maybe we will see charity hospitals as in the USA.
    I would also include alcohol and tobacco in this classification as they are also self inflicted injuries.
    I think when people buy their drugs they should be offered rehab and a guarantee that their job will be held for them until they are clean.
    The benefits of this would be a huge reduction in crime and violence as much crime is related to obtaining money for drugs. People would soon see that if they did not change their ways they would have a very short life expectancy if they could not afford to pay for medical treatment.
  • Ian Orchard
    commented 2017-05-26 17:35:55 +1200
    First thought: Prohibition (in any form) doesn’t and never has worked. It isn’t working with Marijuana or any of the recreational drugs and alcohol of all of them is ridiculously easy to manufacture.
    Education and public management is the only way that works. For e.g. the drink-driving rules have probably made more effective changes to our drinking habits than anything so far. I’d certainly encourage making it less easy to sell the stuff, there seems to be no let or hinderance to every suburb having dozens of grog outlets.
  • Tadeas Mejdr
    commented 2017-05-26 17:18:38 +1200
    The survey is not very well put together as it doesn’t allow for any other solution. Raising tax will hit the poor people much more than rich people. Get alcohol out of supermarkets. Ban ALL alcohol advertising. Sports team sponsorship especially. Same rules as cigarets. Get alcohol out of supermarkets.
  • Shayne Broughton
    commented 2017-05-26 17:18:30 +1200
    The Law Commission looked at this in detail and if we as a country actually enacted those changes as recommended we would actually see some changes already. The new Act is the Sale of Liquor Act in another name and the limited changes are at best window dressing. At worst they have put extra unwanted costs on our Regional Councils and the local Health Boards. Raising tax’s do work and there is plenty of evidence to support this. Reducing supply also works. There is a lot more I could add and I think the TOP party should use a survey as they did with Cannabis. Or just use the recommendation of the Law Commission.
  • Tam Irvine
    commented 2017-05-26 17:11:00 +1200
    Get alcohol out of people’s home and into on-licenses.