We all have the right to live in healthy, safe, and connected communities. Places that support and maintain our wellbeing, where we feel like we belong.
Increasingly, these ideals represent an aspirational privilege, rather than a lived reality for many neighbourhoods across the country. The pervasive availability and promotion of alcohol constantly undermines our health, relationships, and livelihoods, with Māori, Pasifika and low income communities being relentlessly targeted. The lack of environmental regulation of our most harmful drug (i.e. alcohol) drives inequities and loss of life from its serious and widespread harms.
Whilst countless lives have been lost and many more harmed from alcohol, political action has been missing. I’ve lost count of the number of government-commissioned reports, reviews, forums, inquiries, advisory groups, position statements, making strong evidence-based recommendations. But unfortunately, recommendations are too easy to ignore. Rather, it has been easier for government budgets to allocate increased spending to the addiction sector to try to catch those at the bottom of the cliff.
This inaction is incredible when you consider all the benefits that politicians could take credit for – healthier family and personal relationships, improved child wellbeing, better physical and mental health, safer roads and communities, reduced job loss and financial strain, and massive cost savings to society. These outcomes are universally desired and hold no political boundaries.
At long last, we have an opportunity to change our alcohol laws for the better and help make our communities better places to live, work, and play. The Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill (the Bill) is due to be debated in Parliament, hopefully this year. It utilises two of the most effective alcohol policy levers to reduce alcohol harm and inequities; restricting the availability and marketing of alcohol.
The first part of the Bill amends our alcohol laws by making it easier for councils to develop local alcohol policies that can limit the number and location of new alcohol outlets (e.g. pubs, liquor stores, supermarkets) as well as specify maximum trading hours. The Bill removes the special appeals process that alcohol retailers are using to delay and downgrade Council alcohol policies.
These policies were meant to “improve community input into local alcohol licensing decisions”, through community consultation on the draft policy. But the expressed community wishes and desires for stronger controls have been drowned out in the policy appeals process. Extraordinarily, 95% of all council policies have been appealed by supermarkets and/or liquor stores, undermining community desires to protect industry profits. Participating in the lengthy and costly appeals process requires resources to fund lawyers; a tough ask for most communities but especially for our most-deprived.
As an example, Auckland Council’s local alcohol policy has been in appeals purgatory for more than seven years. If adopted, it could offer significant protections from alcohol harm, especially in communities showing the highest levels of harm as they are rightly afforded the strongest policy protections. But the policy now proceeds to the Supreme Court – a level that communities, and indeed most councils, cannot afford to participate in to uphold their wishes and proposed controls.
The relentlessness of the off-licence sector (particularly supermarkets) in challenging these policies has been heart-breaking to witness. Councils’ often end up watering their polices down to avoid endless litigation, policies get stalled so no protections are adopted, policies are abandoned after spending millions of rate-payer dollars in appeals, or decisions are made to forego developing any policy at all. All of this means that the burden then falls hard on community members, often those in our most deprived neighbourhoods, to continue fighting proliferation, outlet by outlet. More outlets then drive consumption and associated harms, are a blight that reduce community amenity, and contribute to eroding the sense of place and belonging in communities.
Councils’ have clearly expressed frustration at community preferences being endlessly challenged by appellants. They say the process is untenable and out of sync with other local government social policy-making processes (e.g. gambling/pokies policy). One has to ask why this special appeals process only exists for alcohol policies. And question is this what Parliament really meant when they said it is “very important that we allow communities to decide what is best for them, given the aim of increasing community input and control over licensing”? It’s no surprise that many Councils, covering over half the country’s population, have formally endorsed the Bill.
The second part of the Bill ends alcohol sponsorship of broadcast sport, helping to break the harmful and contradictory links between alcohol and sport in this country. Too often, our sporting heroes are deployed like Trojan horses to market alcohol directly to our children, at stadia, into homes via broadcast, and even at schools under the guise of porridge promotions. You only had to watch the recent Steinlager Rugby Series to see this in action – plastered over the field, hoardings, scoreboard, media backdrop and also extended to millions of followers of the All Blacks social media accounts and 90,000 Steinlager Facebook followers. Research has shown that sports sponsorship is a major source of alcohol advertising exposure in Aotearoa, and that tamariki Māori and Pasifika children have substantially higher exposure levels. This is concerning given that exposure to alcohol marketing has been established as a cause of youth drinking earlier in life and drinking more heavily. Alcohol sponsorship is not just about encouraging brand switching among drinkers – it is also shown to drive consumption across the population.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
The Bill provides a fix to a fundamental flaw in the local alcohol policy-making process, enabling communities to have a stronger voice in local licensing decisions. These policies can help rein in proliferation of liquor stores, but we also need to improve measures in the Bill that can reverse the problem. Whilst the removal of alcohol sponsorship from broadcast sport addresses a key source of children’s exposure to alcohol marketing, it leaves many other avenues and channels that the alcohol industry can redirect their marketing budgets to.
The Bill is not perfect, but it is good and we support it. It provides partial solutions in response to our most harmful drug and is an important step towards the healthy, safe, connected and fair communities we aspire to have. Unlike recommendations in a report, politicians will be required to bring the elephant in the room into the foreground; that being the substantial role that alcohol plays in many of the issues that politicians express deep care about. We will be watching the vote; you should be too.
Change will require collective action. So let our politicians, who represent us, know that there is strong community support for this Bill, and strong community support for action on alcohol harm. We have a surplus of recommendations but a deficit of actions. As this Bill will likely be voted on as a conscience issue (rather than along party lines), it is important that we show the collective values of people as demanding greater protections from the serious harms of alcohol. This is already evident in the wide range of health, social service, youth, local government, justice and private sector organisations who have already endorsed an open letter in support of the Bill.
By passing the Bill, we can get on with building healthy, safe, connected communities. A fairer society awaits. Let our leaders know you support the Bill by:
- signing the ActionStation petition https://our.actionstation.org.nz/petitions/reduce-alcohol-harm-pass-the-bill; and or
- signing the open letter on behalf of your organisation or in a professional capacity https://passthebill.org.nz/sign-the-open-letter/
Still got questions? Read up: https://passthebill.org.nz/te-kaupapa/. Pass the Bill is a campaign by Alcohol Healthwatch and Hāpai te Hauora.
Dr. Nicki Jackson and Nathan Cowie are advocates for alcohol reform and reducing alcohol harm. Nicki is the Executive Director, and Nathan is a Health Promotion Advisor, at Alcohol Healthwatch.