Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Zealand Revisited

(NOTE:  This blog is from a primarily American perspective)

It's official.  New Zealand has a drinking problem.  While America does too, if you scrape the bottom of the barrel you will actually find quite a few countries that are worse than the good old USA in terms of dangerous and excessive drinking, and NZ appears to be one of them.  And it appears to be getting worse over there as time goes on.

New Zealand has always had such a problem to some extent.  Google "six-o-clock swill" and you'll quickly see that it goes back at least a century.  But the recent increase can be traced back to 1989, when the Sale of Liquor Act dramatically liberalized the booze laws.  Trading hours for booze became 24/6 (still no Sunday sales), up from the previous 10 pm closing times, and the looser licensing laws caused number of outlets to more than double from 1989 to 2009.  Booze prices also shrank relative to average incomes, and "loss leading" became a common practice.  In 1999, on the same day the drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18, they began allowing beer to be sold in supermarkets, accelerating the rise in outlet density, and with the simultaneous addition of Sunday sales, it was now 24/7.  All this in a country that is generally soft on crime and tolerant of extreme drinking and drunken violence.

The Law Commission has apparently come up with a few recommendations to tackle the problem.   In their report, they include the following, among others:

  • Have a "one-way door" (no entry) policy for pubs and nightclubs after 2am
  • Require all pubs to close by 4am
  • No off-premise sales after 10pm
  • Restrict "irresponsible" promotions that encourage excessive drinking
  • Raise the alcohol excise tax by 50%
  • Raise the drinking age from 18 to 20
While we at Twenty-One Debunked would not have a problem with the first five changes being implemented, we clearly take exception to the last one, raising the drinking age.  We do not think it will do any good, and may possibly throw gasoline on the fire.  Clearly, NZ doesn't have a teen drinking problem, they have a Kiwi drinking problem, one that spans all ages.  Plenty of 20-29 year olds can't handle their liquor, should the drinking age be 30 then?  Funny all the vitriol about raising the tax, often the same people over 20 who want the drinking age raised.  If the proposed 50% tax hike (really a mere 10% price hike) bothers you, you're clearly drinking way too much.  Perhaps you should cut down.  Chivas Regal said it best.

Besides, raising the age limit would be a major victory for the pro-21 crowd in this country as well if the drinking age was raised, reducing the chances that our drinking age will be lowered any time in the near future.  It would only reinforce the specious claim that lowering the drinking age in America would be a disaster, since it would seem that NZ tried it and couldn't handle it.  Nevermind that NZ is a very different culture from the USA, and that other factors were at work--neoprohibitionists apparently can't be bothered with pesky facts.

Instead, we propose the following for NZ in addition to the Law Commissions recommendations (aside from the drinking age), and these will likely work in other countries with a serious drinking problem:

  • Set a price floor for alcohol, especially at off-licenses, and ban the practice of "loss leading" (selling below cost).
  • Restrict or ban alcohol advertising, especially on TV and radio.
  • Increase the penalties for drunk driving, and step up enforcement.
  • Lower the general blood alcohol limit for driving to 0.05, and the under-20 limit to 0.02 or less (the limits are currently 0.08 and 0.03, respectively).
  • Hold parents accountable for what their under-18 kids do, especially if the parents supplied them with alcohol beforehand. 
  • Put more cops on the street, and get tough on real crime, especially drunk violence.
  • Ban drinking in the street by all ages, or allow very limited designated areas to do so.
  • Restrict the number and density of alcohol outlets, especially in cities.
  • Increase alcohol education and public awareness campaigns.
  • Exempt microbreweries from any new tax hikes (they are generally not part of the problem, and they would have the hardest time absorbing such price increases). Otherwise, tax the hell out of alcohol, especially RTDs (alcopops).
  • Do NOT raise the drinking age! Just enforce it better, especially for off-premise sales, and close the existing loopholes on furnishing alcohol to minors under 18 (which the Law Commission also recommends).
Note that some of these things are a bit stricter than that which we would propose for America.  However, NZ has a worse drinking problem than we do, and appear to be one of the worst in the world.  Only Russia and a few other former Soviet-bloc countries appear to be worse, and not by all that much. 

Interestingly, the New Zealand Medical Association agreed in 2006 that the drinking age should remain 18, since there was no clinical evidence that alcohol was more harmful to an 18 year old than a 20 year old. But they did say that the current drinking age needs to be enforced better, and also called for tighter advertising restrictions on alcohol.  Unfortunately, they appear to have flip-flopped on the drinking age issue this time around.

What exactly were the effects of lowering the drinking age from 20 to 18 in December 1999?  It turns out that those who claim it was a disaster haven't the foggiest idea of cause and effect.  Carnage on the highways?  Unlikely to be causal.  According to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, the reporting of nonfatal injury crashes by police had improved since 2001. Teen traffic fatalities fluctuated a great deal due to their small numbers, but the rates generally remained below their 1999 values from 2000-2008.  Increase in youth crime and violence?  That had been rising since 1992, seven years before the drinking age was lowered, and actually declined around 1998-2002 before resuming its upward trend.  Again, unlikely causation.

(Take a look at our May 2009 blog post about New Zealand for more information about the issue of their drinking age)

In other news, NZ's driving age (currently 15) was raised to 16 effective in mid-2011, and it will also be a bit tougher to get a license.  To that, we say good--if any age limit should be raised over there, the driving age is it.  Kiwis tend to have higher fatality rates compared to Aussies or us Yanks, and their driving age is ridiculously low compared to most other countries.  They are already debating whether to raise it further to 17.  But while they're at it, why not get tougher on drunk driving and reckless driving for all ages?

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