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MPs lose chance to save lives of young drinkers

Aug 30th, 2012 | By | Category: Latest News, News

A LEADING health academic has criticised Parliament for voting to keep the drinking age at 18.

Tonight’s vote was a real opportunity missed to reduce alcohol-related harm in New Zealand, says Professor Jennie Connor.

Prof Connor is Professor of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago.

She says there is no doubt raising the legal age of purchase to 20 would see a reduction in the number of people killed and injured on roads, especially young drink-drivers.

“When the legal age to purchase alcohol was lowered to 18 age there was an affect on drink-driving crashes involving those aged 18-20, but an even bigger affect on crashes by drivers younger than 18.”

Prof Connor says it is not only traffic crashes, but falls, suicide and non-fatal self-harm that are increased by alcohol consumption.

However, it is not only the legal age of purchase, but also laws around alcohol accessibility, marketing and advertising which she says need changing.

In 2009, a statement was signed by representatives, heads and leaders of doctors and nurses of New Zealand and other major health professional organisations.

The statement included a “5+ Solution” outlined by the group Alcohol Action NZ to reduce the widespread alcohol-related problems.

The “5+ Solution” included raising alcohol prices, raising the purchase age, reducing alcohol accessibility, reducing alcohol marketing and advertising, increasing drink-driving counter-measures and increased treatment opportunities for heavy drinkers.

Prof Connor, right, says despite her support for raising the legal age of purchase, she believes the Government has unfairly focused most of it’s attention on youth drinking, rather than on the New Zealand drinking culture as a whole.

“The Government is doing a number of things. Politically and ideologically they’re opposed to regulating alcohol. They don’t want to restrict business activities around alcohol.

One way of not making too many changes is to just focus on young people. They’ve reduced the youth drink-driving limit to zero, but not the adult limit.”

The Government announced last week that the alcohol industry would get to self-regulate in regards to RTDs. Prof Connor believes that the Government has been more interested in not upsetting businesses rather than adopting effective solutions.

“Lobbyists have a lot of influence. Former MPs such as Steve Maharey have spoken quite openly about the amount of lobbying that goes on.

“The alcohol industry has directly brokered the deal with Minister Collins, and there’s no way of fairly evaluating whether it will have worked or not.

“Alcohol companies don’t like drink-driving limits or price controls. In the deal there is no measure to see if it works. There is no way of regulating.”

Prof Connor says alcohol advertising and marketing has been completely ignored by the Bill. Meanwhile, companies are finding better and smarter ways to get people to drink more.

“Companies say ‘We’re not encouraging people to drink more, we just want them to drink our brand’.

“Well most of these brands are owned by same five companies and they trade these brands between themselves. It isn’t about brand loyalty at all, it’s about getting people to drink more.

“For the last 10 to 15 years these companies have especially targeted female drinkers, specifically by the marketing and advertising of RTDs.”

The parliamentary vote on the legal age to purchase alcohol is only one part of the Alcohol Reform Bill. Laws could also change to give local councils more power to create their own bylaws around liquor availability.

The Law Commission suggested changes be made in response to communities asking for more controls over alcohol.

However Prof Connor is not optimistic about these law changes being effective.

“In a few places it might be effective. Council people I’ve talked to say even if they have their plan ready to go it will be legally challenged by business people. My problem is how it would work,

“It’s a bit like the Resource Management Act in that you can object but you need to find a whole truckload of money to go to court and fight it.”

With the age of purchase staying at 18, greater effort will be needed identify and treat young drinkers before they reach adulthood.

“We do need facilities to treat people, but the trouble with identifying and treating people is it is so resource intensive. It’s incredibly expensive. The way to limit the amount of drinking is to reduce the alcohol supply. We can’t fix it one person at a time.”

With alcohol-related harming gaining more awareness through the country, Professor Connor says it might be time for New Zealanders to pressure their politicians to take it a lot more seriously.

“If people really want to see change around alcohol-harm reduction, they should make it an election issue.”

IMAGES: sciencemediacentre.co.nz, otagodailytimes.co.nz, stuff.co.nz

 

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