The Tip of the New Temperance Iceberg?

Alcohol abuse, and its related problems, is not just a New Zealand issue but a global one.  Patterns of alcohol consumption are subject to changes in most countries over time.  It is tempting to state that such changes are almost tidal in nature, with consumption rising and falling gradually over time, subject in particular to the influence of generation change.

Forms of “anti-social” and potentially harmful drinking behaviour by young people, often referred to as “binge drinking”, have attracted significant media and public attention in several countries, including New Zealand.   As a consequence a number of countries have tightened laws in relation to a number of related areas, from advertising to licensing to excise and taxes.

Without going into specific details, there are some striking similarities in the global reaction to alcohol abuse, and in particular the calls for regulation and controls as a solution, with that of the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The most striking similarity of all may well be the degree of global co-ordination of the movement.

This is a factor that should not be under-estimated.  The liquor industries of that earlier time treated the temperance movement with ignorance and disdain, and came to pay an extremely high price for this arrogance in a number of countries.  Historically the different drinks sectors have often responded together to threats of regulation and blanket forms of special taxes and excises.  At some point, however, the wine industry in particular may need to be prepared to treat its liquor compatriots at a degree of arms length, and be willing to differentiate itself rather than be tarred by a collective brush of social harm.  The stakes are too high.  It took 70 years to remove many of the most socially and economically backward consequences of New Zealand’s near-flirtation with Prohibition in 1919.

The Law Commission Report

The New Zealand Law Commission, led by former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was tasked in 2008 with conducting “a comprehensive review of the regulatory framework for the sale and supply of liquor”.

During 2009 the Commission produced a wide-ranging Issues Paper with the title “Alcohol in Our Lives” ahead of a submission gathering process and “information gathering” tour.  While NZ Winegrowers participated in this process, it seems that the industry rank and file and the wine drinking public were clearly less active responding than those critical of elements of drinking and alcohol abuse within New Zealand.  It seems that too many people thought this was a hot air exercise that would quietly go away.  While some probably still feel that way, it is a grave misjudgement.

The Commission, in its latest report entitled “Alcohol In Our Lives: Curbing the Harm”,  has identified the drinking culture of a large number of New Zealanders as a concern and a source of much of the identified harm related to alcohol abuse, and has gone on to make a slew of proposals (153 in all) for changes to the existing legislative and regulatory framework.  The problem, however, is the very weak nexus between culture as an identified problem and the efficacy of legislation/regulation to effect actual change in culture.  History has provided past examples, with 20th Century Prohibition a case in point, where legislating against perceived cultural harms drives seemingly unforeseen and clearly undesirable cultural changes.

Culture is built on attitudes, not just behaviour.  A great many factors go into any “drinking culture”, including history, traditions, climate, socio-economic  status and, of course, laws – although these tend more often to be reflections of societal attitudes than cultural drivers as such.

The Report has already garnered much comment, and this is not intended as the forum for a detailed analysis of its arguments and conclusions, but a number of serious concerns must be addressed nonetheless.

In particular there seems to be a degree of confusion about where harmful drinking is undertaken (such that at times the Report’s inference becomes that all drinking is harmful).  Despite attempts to place an onus on managers of licensed premises not to serve inebriated customers, it is clear that some excessive drinking does still take place in bars and other such locations.  On the other hand, the justifiable tougher enforcement of drink driving laws has acted as a balancing factor, affecting the amount of alcohol consumed in on licence premises and directing those with a will to drink to excess to drink elsewhere, not necessarily in safer locations.

There is also a lack of substantive evidence as to what drinks are at the core of abuse.  Is it beer, wine and spirits all together; primarily one or two of these; primarily RTDs; etc.?  It is not at all clear from the Law Commission Report, which is important given that there are already different rules as to what may be sold in different types of outlet (supermarkets are restricted, for example), and yet the proposals treat them all as equally culpable.  Indeed it is not really clear that this question was even asked at all.  For all the discussion of supermarket sales of alcohol, there is no substantive evidence that alcohol purchased in supermarkets is more or less responsible for problem drinking than that from other outlets.  Given that supermarkets do not sell spirits, for example, this is a very significant issue not to have been given serious consideration.  Moreover, a significant proportion of supermarket sales of alcoholic beverages are likely to be in conjunction with food sales, unlike most (but not all) other off licence premises.

Generic statistics, in particular, risk leading to either confusion or inadequately justified conclusions.

“Because the 1989 Act relaxed the criteria for granting licences there has been a proliferation of liquor outlets, with the number of licences more than doubling from 6,295 in 1990 to 14,424 in February 2010. Of this total, licences to sell liquor on premise more than trebled (2,423 to 7,656) while off-licences more than doubled (1,675 to 4,347).” (para 2.11, page 59)

There is a considerable risk in the use of these numbers of mistaking cultural change in respect of food and eating preferences for increased alcohol consumption (via the use of licensed premises as a proxy for consumption).  If in fact the number of restaurants and cafes has proliferated owing to a combination of factors (increased immigration, the impact of longer or more varied working hours on meal preparation, the loss of cooking skills in younger generations, etc.), then the commensurate increase in on premise licences is a reflection of these changes and may have little or nothing to do with consumption per se.

Indeed it is possible to argue that from a drinking culture perspective this is a positive development, rather than a negative one.  If the trebling of on premise licences supports a culture of drinking with food, rather than in the absence of food, this would seem to be quite the opposite of the “binge drinking” culture.  Indeed, it might alternatively be argued that if the proliferation of on premise licences has been contributed to by liberalisation of licensing laws, then those laws have indirectly contributed to a broader and deeper food culture in New Zealand.

It should go without saying, therefore, that material changes to the ability of food outlets to obtain on premise licences could be the cause of undesirable and unwanted consequences.

Lack of Discriminatory Analysis

One of the core problems with the report is the nature of the underlying analysis.  Typically the analysis is generic and non-discriminatory, with many “facts” taken at face value.  There is no satisfactory qualitative distinction made between beer, wine, spirits or other alcoholic beverages as to when and how these beverages are drunk, and as to whether or not there are differential degrees of abuse. The fact that there are different levels of elasticity of demand for different types of beverage is  discussed but without any credible attempt to explain the differences, or indeed to understand the consequences of these differences when related back to the core recommendations.

Conclusion: the underlying analysis is weak, but is used to justify broad brush proposals without considering the full range of potential outcomes.

The Report Language Raises Questions

The language of the report emphasises its self-importance.  Grand statements of sweeping banality make uncomfortable reading in what is supposed to be the serious recommendation of a Law Commission and not of ideologically-driven politicians.

“As a country at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, we face significant social and economic challenges. Meeting these challenges will require an educated, socially cohesive, productive and healthy population. Reducing the human and economic cost of harmful drinking will contribute to a better future for all New Zealanders and is within our reach.” (para 2.40, page 65)

One suspects this paragraph could have been written in almost any country at the cusp of almost any decade, and the words “harmful drinking” could be substituted with any social ill that could be named.

Nothing in the Report goes to the true core of how to change the culture of drinking: how to teach young (and old alike) to respect alcohol.  Alcohol is a substance that may be toxic if abused, and which does have the potential to cause a wide range of social and economic harms.  That cannot be ignored.  The wine industry (or most of it anyway) has long realised that the adage “drink less, drink better” is the key to far greater profits than the consumption of vast volumes of cheap wine. However “drink less, drink better” is only possible where quality is a goal and standards of education and drinker sophistication are rising. The Report discusses the wine industry as if it is an industry built on big profits (yes, most wine producers will laugh at the notion), strong arm lobbying, “vested interests” and has no real concern for its customers’ wellbeing if that would involve reduced sales.  This is clearly a view that has taken hold in a not insignificant portion of the community, and has not been successfully disabused or corrected.  The industry, collectively, must take some responsibility for this.

Most important of all, the New Zealand Wine Industry must not shut its eyes to what is going on within society at home and around the world of its customers.

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