Thursday, March 23, 2006

Editorial: Merits of split-age drink law

Probably the most disconcerting development since the passage of the Sale of Liquor Amendment Act in 1999 has been the increased prevalence of binge drinking.

Worst of all, this harmful pattern extends to those well below the legal drinking age of 18. There has, for example, been a jump in alcohol-related admissions to hospital for children aged as young as 10 to 14. This has led to renewed calls for the drinking age to return to 20. More cogently, it has also prompted a suggestion that any lift in that age should be limited to the buying of liquor to take away.

The merit of this split-age option lies in its recognition of the origin of binge drinking by the young. This is not behaviour that is cultivated in pubs and clubs. Bar management, staff and licensees face substantial fines or suspended licences if an intoxicated person is served, or if they allow a person to become intoxicated. Additionally, many young club-goers are unlikely to have the money to indulge in such behaviour. Binge drinkers prefer, instead, to buy liquor from an off-licence outlet and consume it in cars, at parks, or at their home.

Logically, it is far easier to check a person's age in the relative calm of a bottle store than in a crowded bar. Therefore, banning liquor sales from that source to those under 20, backed up by serious enforcement, should be a practical, if not foolproof, way of restricting supply. It is not unreasonable and irrational, as Bruce Robertson, the chief executive of the Hospitality Association, asserts. It is, in fact, a reasonable response to a worrying outcome of the 1999 legislation.

Just how reasonable is indicated by Mr Robertson's concession that some of his members would probably support the split. Such supporters are not only acknowledging some of the consequences of binge drinking by the young - teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, road accidents and violence - and the fact that binge, risky and problem drinking has become a particular hazard for women aged 16 to 24. They are also recognising that if present trends continue the pressure to return the legal age to 20 will become overwhelming, and their bottom lines will suffer.

The split-age option is a commendable piece of lateral thinking that stops short of trying to put the genie of the lower drinking age back into the bottle. It has arisen at Parliament's law and order select committee because of proposed legislation, originally introduced by former MP Matt Robson, to lift the age. The bill's supporters contend the 1999 act is a failed experiment that has harmed teenagers. But that is not a view wholly endorsed by the chairman of the Liquor Licensing Authority, Judge Edward Unwin. His belief is that any concerns about liquor abuse should relate mainly to the point of purchase.

Judge Unwin, the authority chairman for the past five years, is adamant that very few licensees willingly sell to minors. It seems apparent, however, that the main tenets of the 1999 legislation have not been supported to the same extent by other liquor suppliers. This has proved a serious flaw. Lifting the age for purchases from bottle stores would be one step towards ensuring that liquor is not sold to those too young to handle it sensibly. More rigorous enforcement of the age limit would be another.

New Zealand would not be breaking new ground here. Australia exercises the split-age option. It has recognised that a distinction should be made between points of purchase. If this country wishes to rid itself of the unpalatable spectacle of binge drinking by its youth, it must follow suit.

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