Law Fails to Reduce Harm

“This bill focuses on minimising alcohol-related harm, including crime, disorder, and public health problems and zeros in where harm is occurring – particularly around young people,”  said Justice Minister Simon Power.

We are currently travelling in California, but reading New Zealand news we see that the alcohol law changes have been accepted by government.  We find ourselves quite uncomfortable with many of the proposed changes, but Mr Power’s statement seems reasonable to us. We are not against attempting to reduce harm from alcohol so we had a bit of a think.

We realised that unfortunately, most of the bill is not doing what he claims. Raising the drinking age may. But almost every other point listed seems to be about making alcohol universally more inaccessible or unaffordable. We don’t believe there is any evidence showing that eliminating alcohol is a real solution.

Even the most strident anti-alcohol lobbyists estimate that 25% of New Zealanders regularly binge drink. We wonder about that, but if we just accept it, then these proposals are restricting access for 75% of the population who do not have a problem in an attempt to control the 25% who do. That does not “zero in on where harm occurs.”

Plus, the continuing pressure to raise the cost of alcohol has a disproportionate effect on the smaller producers. High costs will eliminate marginally profitable breweries who won’t survive on the smaller volume that their boutique beers attract. It also has unfair impact on those with lower income. At best, these beers will only be accessible to people with the means to afford the expense, whether or not they have an alcohol addiction.

Humans have been consuming alcohol for something like 10,000 years. Some even say brewing was the impetus for the move from hunting/gathering to an agrarian lifestyle. Cultures identify with alcohol, from French wine drinkers to Irish stout drinkers. In society, a well made wine or a finely crafted beer represents creativity and artistry like any other craft.

And as with any other food, we humans seek out variety in alcohol. This column shows our fascination with terroir and regional differences. We like to explore new ingredients and fermenting methods. From our non-prohibitionist perspective, alcohol is a normal part of who we are.

Of course alcohol has risks. We do have people in our society who have addictive behaviours; and those who feel compelled to get high as often as possible. When alcohol is the cheapest legal way to get high, they will binge drink. In Oslo, Norway, however, it is said that heroin is cheaper than alcohol and poses a greater societal problem. Here in California, we just had to declare we were over 18 to buy marker pens because apparently inhalants are a great risk for youth.

We also just bought a 6-pack of 9% abv beer for $8 in a supermarket, far cheaper than current New Zealand prices. Youth aren’t forced to use inhalants here because alcohol is prohibitively expensive. Alcohol is harder for kids to buy with the drinking age at 21, but marker pens are simply cheaper. Someone compelled to get high at the lowest cost will find a way to do so.

So back in New Zealand, regulatory changes to make alcohol less available – removing it from dairies, restricting advertising, limiting serving hours and so on – will be a hassle for all of us, and will possibly reduce the amount of alcohol consumed by alcoholics and youth. But it will not change their drive or desire to get high, and could even possibly push them toward riskier behaviour.

We heartily support the $10 million toward addiction rehabilitation. We believe that there must be more we can do as a society to manage addiction and to discourage the compulsion to get high, without destroying a reasonable desire to enjoy a variety of alcohol.

Sadly, the current legislation is moving toward taking all the art and culture out of beer, so that eventually we could just have generic containers of plain alcohol that only appeal to only those who are striving to get high.

Originally published in the Nelson Mail.

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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