$350 million missed by Peter Dunne

New Zealanders want the Government to toughen up – not by putting more people in prison but by tackling the death and social destruction caused by binge drinking. Research conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Health shows huge public support for moves to raise the minimum price of alcohol. The survey shows the vast majority support raising the price with only 24% opposed; 65% support reducing the hours alcohol can be sold; more than 75% support raising the drinking age to 20 (including 68% of people aged 18 to 24); 82% support increasing restrictions on alcohol advertising; and 65% believe there are too many liquor outlets.

The research validates recommendations in the Law Commission’s recent report on proposed changes to New Zealand’s liquor legislation. The Commission’s recommendations were also endorsed by Prof Doug Sellman and hundreds of medical professionals in New Zealand as the ‘5+ Solution’ – based on the most up to date international research on how to reduce alcohol related harm in society.

Raising the price

The research indicates that raising the price of alcohol – by increasing the tax component – is the single most effective intervention that any government can take. Increased levies would affect two groups in particular – the young, who tend to have limited income to spend to alcohol, and binge drinkers who spend a significant proportion of their income on alcohol. These are the problem groups in society that need to be hit the hardest.

Peter Dunne apparently had the results of this survey sitting on his desk in mid-2010 while National was in the process of seeking further submissions from the public on this issue – but refused to publish it. He sat on the report for over a year and, when it finally became public two days ago, he was accused of suppressing the results. Interviewed on National Radio, he denied suppressing anything, but gave two reasons for failing to publish it. One was that “the data was essentially consistent with a range of public views already available”. The other was that the $10,000 it would have cost to publish “could be better spent elsewhere in the health sector”.

Hollow arguments

These are hollow arguments. Until now, the two main sources of information about public attitudes to binge drinking came from unscientific media polls and public outrage at the damage alcohol has been causing. Coverage given to the death of 16 year old King’s College student James Webster from alcoholic overdose may have been a turning point in public opinion.

However, the research that Peter Dunne had sitting on his desk was conducted by a Ministry of Health committee using scientifically validated methodology and procedures. As such, it was the only reliable source of information on the public attitudes to alcohol law reform available. So to argue that there was no need to publish the report because the data was essentially consistent with an existing range of views is nonsense. Media stories are anecdotal and unreliable and ideally should not be used to guide policy and legislation. For that we need facts, figures and reliable research.

The argument put forward by Mr Dunne that the $10,000 needed to publish the report “could be better spent elsewhere in the health sector” is even more facetious. Mr Dunne expanded on this in his radio interview by saying that Government didn’t want to spend the $10,000 because it was scratching around to find money for its methamphetamine strategy at the time. Once again, Mr Dunne is missing the point – well two points actually.

Alcohol the biggest drug problem

The first is that alcohol is by far the biggest drug problem in the country – not methamphetamine. Alcohol kills over 1,000 New Zealanders every year and according to Bryan Easton, a leading economist, it costs the country about $16 billion a year. In comparison, methamphetamine is involved in perhaps two deaths a year – not from overdose but because of the occasional murder committed under its influence – while alcohol is involved in over half of the 60 to 80 murders committed every year. If a choice has to be made between the social destruction caused by alcohol or by methamphetamine, dealing with binge drinking provides a lot more bang for our bucks.

The second point Mr Dunne has overlooked is that if the Government actually adopted the recommendation to increase the price of alcohol – as supported by the ‘suppressed’ research – this would raise $350 million. That’s what the Law Commission said a 10% increase in the price of alcohol would achieve. And right now New Zealand needs every source of revenue it can find. Christchurch needs rebuilding, public servants are being laid off left right and centre, and the country is facing the biggest deficit in its history.

And we have a binge drinking culture which is out of control. Under the circumstances, Government’s reluctance raise the price of alcohol (and adopt the other measures supported by this research) is hard to fathom. This ‘suppressed’ research suggests Mr Dunne is not interested in what the public clearly wants the Government to do – raise the price – and pick up $350 million along the way. As Revenue Minister, there’s a lot you could do with it; and you’ll get your $10,000 back.