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

  • Alistair Graham
    commented 2017-05-26 17:08:33 +1200
    I think the larger problem is the education around alcohol and our binge drinking culture. I like that you want to use the funds for education on drugs and also to invest in a financially struggling mental health sector. If raising the tax on alcohol is the way to get that funding then I support that!
  • Chloe Graham
    commented 2017-05-26 17:06:24 +1200
    Flag most of what I said – I obviously didn’t read the entire article properly :P
  • Ulli Weissbach
    commented 2017-05-26 16:50:36 +1200
    I’m for raising age. NZ youth seem to be not mature enough to handle alcohol in a reasonable way. Nor are their parents. The binge drinking culture goes much deeper into the English genes and culture.

    Raising tax or raising price, or any other means of prohibition doesn’t work, as history has proven.
  • Chloe Graham
    commented 2017-05-26 16:44:35 +1200
    Our drinking culture is absolutely horrific in New Zealand and I’m glad that it’s being talked about. However, I think that changing a country’s attitude towards alcohol would better start with improving alcohol education at school, and creating campaigns to make it uncool like what was done with smoking (also making alcohol advertising illegal would be great in my opinion). On the topic of better education at school, is TOP going to address both our lack of support for children dealing with mental health issues and improving our sex-education (to have an emphasis on consent and healthy relationships)? Cheers!
  • Stephen Hoskins
    commented 2017-05-26 16:23:44 +1200
    Support raising price of alcohol, but with a focus on increasing the price of off-license alcohol so as to narrow the difference in off- and on- license booze. I believe this price differential is a key part of the problem. Binge drinking behaviour is learned by price-sensitive teenagers who down a relatively cheap 12-pack of beer at home, before heading to bars & clubs for the night.

    Increasing the price of off-license alcohol will a) impact young people the most, b) reduce the formation of binge-drinking habits, and c) shift consumption from hidden locations into public and supervised ones.

    Excise tax should be even, on a per-mL of alcohol basis.

    Licensing of on-licenses should provide carrots for responsible venues (fast-track, cheap, long license periods) and harsh sticks (fines, automatic denial of renewed license) for those seen as perpetrators of harms. Make bars & restaurants directly responsible for the behaviour of all patrons – even permitting entry to an already-intoxicated client makes the bar responsible.

    Under the SSAA, local authorities, police and health officials should operate with the objective of encouraging the responsible consumption of alcohol while minimising the harms. Current wording creates an antagonistic environment where reducing consumption is seen as the only goal.
  • P Smith
    commented 2017-05-26 16:16:15 +1200
    Minimum price, not Increased Excise Tax

    I disagree with the Raising the age of purchase and the Increasing the Excise Tax. We need to engineer a cultural change to the way people are drinking. Encouraging people to opt to drink one boutique craft beer, rather than a crate of the cheapest. Instead of Increasing the Excise Tax, we need a minimum price (based on standard drinks) on all alcohol.

    This will encourage people to drink less in each session as well as supporting the craft beer market.
  • Paul Squire
    commented 2017-05-26 16:15:39 +1200
    I was OK with the Cannabis policy until I read here that alcohol (which is legal) causes so much more harm than the illegal drugs. Doesn’t this undermine the arguments for decriminalising Cannabis? Won’t decrimilisation replace the reduced relatively small criminal and justice harms with much more significant harms resulting from use?
  • Chris Skilton
    commented 2017-05-26 16:06:50 +1200
    That survey needs more thought and substance in my view. I’m a huge believer in your consultative approach to policy, however one policy question followed by a dozen profiling questions has left me scratching my head. Please don’t lose sight of what makes TOP a shining light in an otherwise out of touch political landscape. Keep up the great work!!
  • Richard Hectors
    commented 2017-05-26 16:05:51 +1200
    Please no.

    This problem can’t be solved with a legislative sledgehammer that just punishes regular people, for the sake of a few causing a problem.

    The solution is cultural, which needs to be addressed through education.

    NZ is already restrictive enough with it’s drinking laws (prices are equivalent to London despite us not being a global mega-city), and tax hikes will only damage our tourism industry.

    Don’t let TOP become a party of wowsers.
  • Ray McKeown
    commented 2017-05-26 15:56:39 +1200
    I support raising excise tax and making it based on alcohol content with no favouring of particular types of drink (e.g. wine good spirits bad). Proviso is that the money raised should be used for harm prevention not general revenue.
    Not happy raising the age. Don’t see why we make 18/19 year old adults into criminals to stop under 18’s drinking. I equally think that TOP’s cannabis policy should be based around 18. Also generally feel we should make age based laws as consistent as possible. I’m with the if you can vote and fight crowd you should be able to make other choices.
    One other reaction I don’t see discussed is making individual drinkers more responsible for their actions. Rather than stinging bar staff and managers why not hit the drunks and the under age drinkers in the pocket. Charge people who are injured when drunk some portion of their care costs for instance? This won’t deal with the ‘alcholics’ but could make the social problem drinkers think twice. How about forcing all off licence drinks to be sold in aluminium cans? Hard to break a can and cut someone in a fight! I doubt the wine/spirits industry would be happy!
  • Malcolm Fletcher
    commented 2017-05-26 15:55:31 +1200
    Make an abuser of alcohol pay for the damage they cause. As part of the Tax system, similar to how we currently manage student loans I advocate we introduce a ‘User Pays’ system where someone who breaks the law, including drink driving, must pay the cost of their actions. So, if an intoxicated driver causes an accident, their medical costs and the costs of those affected, ie any other victims medical costs as well as set costs for Ambulance and Fire service callouts should be added to the drivers Tax in the form of a Charge. This is similar in principle to the ‘proceeds of crime’ but instead of taking away they money a person has made from their criminal actions, bill them for the cost to the country of their illegal actions. This works for Anyone breaking the law so someone convicted of assault would be charged for the care of the victim, same for rapists. This would help offset the costs related to illegal activities and would also act as a deterrent.
  • Kevin FitzGerald
    commented 2017-05-26 15:51:02 +1200
    I agree with Bill Parks that our culture accepts drinking too much as normal. Until we make changes to that raising the price merely discriminates against the less well off. We also accept violence rather readily and combined those two attitudes can only end in tears. Can we not harness the promotional power of the media to create a campaign to change attitudes and at the same time ban advertising of alcohol and limit options for buying it?
  • Janet Buckton
    commented 2017-05-26 15:46:20 +1200
    Definately increase the price of ‘ready to drink’ alcohol. It’s what a lot of young people drink and it’s very easy to overindulge because it’s sweet.
  • Pete Ross
    commented 2017-05-26 15:42:55 +1200
    I support the raising of the drinking age back to 20. Tax it higher by all means, this won’t affect my moderate drinking habits. Increasing the tax take on a harmful product is logical. The backlash from the drug and alcohol industries would be fierce for both this idea and your policy on cannabis( which I am also in favor of). Good luck, your policies are most in line of were I would like to see things going so you have my votes.
  • Tam Irvine
    commented 2017-05-26 15:39:20 +1200
    I think TOP is really missing the mark on this. Better to have no policy at all on this one.
  • Jack Marshall
    commented 2017-05-26 15:36:25 +1200
    Two things: The poll & reaction.

    Firstly, the questions in the poll were loaded with intent. E.g. If we did not want to raise taxes or the age meant we had to choose the point “Let the police and welfare pick up the pieces”. That’s hardly objective reasoning. Also, as a 25 year old student, all of the questions after that were geared towards 50+ year olds that I couldn’t even answer.

    Second point, taxation has the same problem with the cigarettes, raising taxes hits the poor the hardest, thus not the best way to reduce harm.
  • David Gandar
    commented 2017-05-26 15:30:40 +1200
    Yes to raise the age limit BUT this will be universally flouted unless there is a corresponding education & life skills programme to teach better alcohol use, WITH the support of parents. Without a programme, under-age drinking will just go underground & involve social & police resources wastefully.
  • Bill Parks
    commented 2017-05-26 15:29:04 +1200
    I have lived in NZ for 11 years, but I originally come from the US. My partner and I were pretty shocked at the role alcohol plays in the culture here. Not that things are perfect over there, far from it, but it does seem alcohol and drunkeness are more socially acceptable here. (We also noticed this in Australia). I was amazed, for example, to see middle-aged men and women on the public busses blitzed out of their minds. I’d never seen that before in that age group.

    Before going down the regulatory route, I’d like to see some studies done on how other societies handle it: France for example, or Germany. I think the question needs to be asked: what is it about Australia and NZ culture that glorifies binge drinking? How do you create a culture where the socially acceptable norm is moderation? This is not something that I think you can legislate your way out of, or at least that can only be one component of the strategy. There is a cultural component, and those are tricky to change. Having said that, it can be done.

    Perhaps the solution is not to regulate alchohol per se, but regulate the negative behaviours. I don’t think raising prices is the way to go; it punishes those of us who drink responsibly. I don’t like nanny-state solutions that don’t focus on root causes. Why not crack down on public intoxication? Hold people accountable for throwing up in public?
  • Roger Thomas
    commented 2017-05-26 15:24:04 +1200
    Zero tolerance with drink driving
    5% tax across the board on all alcohol directly dispersed to family violence support education prevention
  • Gabrielle Hogg
    commented 2017-05-26 15:15:38 +1200
    we really need a policy to prevent Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, about 1 in 150 individuals have this condition and no one is addressing this in NZ. So what is your position on preventing FASD and providing much needed support to this with FASD and their families.
  • Tam Irvine
    commented 2017-05-26 15:09:19 +1200
    I think we should investigate whether we can ameliorate alcohol’s effects by promoting on-license consumption at the expense of off-license. On-license consumption is more easily controlled (people drink together in clusters as opposed to alone in private residences), prices are generally higher anyway and their are already strict measures in place which prohibit serving drunk customers. Off-license consumption is much harder to control and is no subject to any supervision. It has the further affect of creating problems at on-licenses due to the phenomenon of pre-loading.

    In the past there have been proposals for a split-age for drinking and an excise tax system which favours on-license drinking over off-license. National have brushed off these suggestions by saying that it would be too complex. I fail to see how (and suspect this is just further evidence of the neoliberal’s cynicism towards the state and lack of vision).

    TOP should be careful how it frames its alcohol policy. An approach perceived as ‘nanny-state’ may turn off a lot of voters and harm its ability to advocate for its more important tax policies. Don’t make it hard for yourself Gareth.