Alcohol law loopholes leave craft brewing vulnerable

It’s legal to drive drunk in New Zealand.

I know this because I was a drink-test dummy for Consumer a few years ago. We were testing cheapo breath testers, and comparing them against an official police breath tester and an ESR tester used to calibrate the police kits.

My eighth handle of 4% beer was the one that put me over the legal limit. Yes, I can drink seven handles, get on the road, and be completely legal.

Are you happy with that? I’m not. For the record, I am drunk and impaired well before I get near the limit. I bet you are too.

Right now, our government is talking about limiting alcohol harm. So why isn’t our drink-drive limit related to the amount you can drink before impairing your judgement? Why isn’t it set to the common international standard of 50mg alcohol/100ml blood?

Bill English, the No.2 man in the government, opposed changing the existing drink-drive limit in 2003, saying it would discriminate against rural residents who had “a social drink”. “Anyone who’s had a beer and a spoonful of cough mixture is potentially a criminal”. Yeah right, minister – you obviously did not understand the implications of the law you were supporting.

Perhaps this explains why the current government is dithering over proposals to reduce our limit to 50mg. It doesn’t explain why Labour, which is pushing the change, sat on its hands while in government for nine years.

Under-age drinking is another loophole. Unlike most countries, there’s no under-age drinking law in New Zealand. The closest we get is attempting to restrict alcohol purchase, supply and possession. Actually drinking the stuff is perfectly legal, provided it’s done in private.

We say we want to limit alcohol harm, but it’s legal to drink at any age, and it’s legal to drive drunk. These are the two basic tools used around the world to limit alcohol harm, and we effectively do not use them in New Zealand.

So just how are we going to control alcohol consumption? By fiddling around the edges, by being inconsistent, and by passing the buck.

For example, the government wants to let local communities oppose liquor licences and make them harder to get. It has also moved to make licences easier to get if they are related to the Rugby World Cup. That’s inconsistent.

Another example – both national and local government allow police to use discretion in enforcing liquor bylaws and regulations. This always puts police into an impossible position – they have the choice of turning a blind eye to law breaking, or facing cries of victimisation if they don’t. That’s passing the buck.

A third example – there has been talk of regulating a minimum price for beer, wine and spirits. But the mechanism touted for this is an increase in alcohol taxes, which may well be applied across the board.

The beer industry is now operating in an unpredictable and politically volatile environment and big brewers have recognised the risk of increased political intervention. The recent DB ExportMorton Coutts’ TV ad looks like retro humour, but it has an underlying message to the government – you interfered in our industry before, we found a way around it, and we can do it again.

Smaller craft brewers are especially vulnerable in this climate. We take our craft industry for granted, but compared to forces such as major political parties, big breweries, supermarkets and anti-alcohol lobbies, craft brewing could be stomped under foot. I have no doubt the big breweries, for example, would happily accept law changes that reinforced their economies of scale.

What can craft beer bars and brewers do to protect themselves? Invite your local MP around. Show them how the industry is growing, creating jobs and building exports in their electorate. Demonstrate that beer drinking happens outside student pubs and sports clubs, and doesn’t require sculling a jug.

And let them know they have no right to tamper with the details while they leave the two big loopholes of drunk driving and under-age drinking wide open.

Cheers
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©Martin Craig. Reproduction with permission only.

martin@nzbeerblog.com



15 Responses to “Alcohol law loopholes leave craft brewing vulnerable”

  1. Nigel here from Croucher Brewing. We did exactly that a couple of months back. We had our local MP Todd McClay and one of the MP’s highly involved in the alcohol reform work, MP Chester Burrows.

    It was an excellent opportunity to highlight the progress of our industry, the dare i say ‘more responsible’ drinking ideology that goes hand in hand with craft beer, some suggestions for how we think alcohol laws could be reformed to achieve positive outcomes for communities, and just generally open the lines of communication with law makers. It was worthwhile.

    We live (and operate breweries) in interesting times!

    Reply

  2. “Are you happy with that?”

    Hell no. Like, I suspect, yourself, I can handle 8 handles and get home in one piece, but I wouldn’t drive after 1. I most certainly consider myself impaired long before I get to the end of the 8th.

    The closest I ever came to driving drunk was in Norway. My mate offered me a taste of this new beer he was trying. I tasted a few sips, and it was alright. About an hour later he asked me to be sober driver to take him up to his mate’s place. Why? Because he’d drunk the rest of the stubbie. Not only that, but nobody I knew in Norway would even think of getting in the driver’s seat until at the very least the afternoon after a night on the piss, for the simple reason that none of them wanted to be in anyway impaired while driving. Most of this happened in places the cops were basically never seen, but the cops weren’t necessary because everybody could see the sense in the law and obeyed because they didn’t want to put themselves, their loved ones, or their mates in any more danger than necessary. That, sir, is responsible drink-driving behaviour (although not necessarily responsible drinking), and something our compatriots, especially those in government, desperately need to learn.

    Is it too much to ask for leadership from our politicians?

    Nigel Gregory, good on ya.

    Reply

  3. Yes, good on ya Nigel. Its good to see a small brewer getting out there.

    I’m interested in your approach – what were your suggestions on alcohol law reform, and what were the MPs’ responses?

    And to see the Brewers Guild submission, go to
    http://brewersguild.org.nz/news/2009/bgnz-submission-re-reform-of-nz-liquor-laws

    Martin

    Reply

  4. Well, if there were any doubters left, the ad in this weekends ‘Your Weekend’ seals it. The anti-government / anti-regulation bent of the campaign is insane — in both its intensity and its irrelevance to the apparent history of the actual beer. Wasn’t Coutts working on continuous fermentation for decades before the ‘Black Budget’?

    Reply

  5. And yet very few drink driving accidents involve folks with blood alcohol between .05 & .08. I suspect that the accident rate for folks in that group is little different from that of folks under .05. Hopefully the govt plans on spending the next year collecting that kind of data.

    Look, most sensible folks follow a rule of thumb that keeps them around the .05 mark. The higher threshold protects against variation due to differences in eating and such. Drop the limit to oh five, and folks will target maybe a single glass of wine for the night.

    We need better data on how many accidents would be prevented to know whether the decrease is warranted.

    Reply

  6. Eric Crampton, last I checked we don’t know how many people with an alcohol level between .05 and .08 crash their cars because the government doesn’t collect that information. However, there has been plenty of research done on the subject, but the government has rejected it because it was done in other countries and therefore doesn’t meet the New Zealand situation. That is utter nonsense. There is nothing magical about New Zealand or New Zealanders that somehow rules out the applicability of overseas research. We’re not really hobbits and New Zealand is not really Middle Earth. We’re people just like everybody else in the world. The research is relevant, and the government should stop making excuses and use it.

    I see your point about people managing their drinking to hold themselves under the limit, and that is a good thing. But what’s so hard about organising a designated driver? That’s what we did when I was in Norway, staying in a small county in which driving was necessary thanks to the lack of public transport or taxis. One person would drink nothing stronger than water and would do the driving, and those who were drinking would not even think of driving until at least after lunch the next day.

    I like designated drivers because the fact that a responsible drinker can get himself into a state in which he would not dare drive while he’s still legally sober is really, really scary.

    Reply

  7. We do have stats on the alcohol levels of drivers who die in motor vehicle accidents; if this is proportionate to their involvement in accidents, the 0.05-0.08 range isn’t much to worry about.

    I’ve not done a comprehensive review of the lit that the anti-side has been citing, but what bits I have read haven’t filled me with confidence. Drops in the blood alcohol level tend to be contemporaneous with enforcement blitzes; sorting out causality then gets a bit tough. We’d also want to know how much of the decrease comes from decreased accidents in the 0.05-0.08 range and how much comes from fewer people who make bad decisions when at 0.07 and decide to get to 0.10. Why do we need to know that? Because that would tell us how much of the benefit comes from the former group, and how much could potentially be achieved through greater enforcement on folks above 0.08.

    Finally, we’d need to balance off the benefits of reduced deaths against reduced consumption benefits for folks who have to abstain more. I agree with you about the merits of designated drivers if you’ve got a bunch of guys out on the town. But shouldn’t a couple be able to share a bottle of wine on an evening out? 4 standard drinks each over say 3 hours – that’s fine to drive on, fine at 0.08, but damned risky at 0.05.

    Reply

  8. Eric Crampton, I stand corrected. I agree completely with your second comment, except that I would prefer a couple sharing a bottle of wine to have the driving half drink a little less and the non-driving half drink as much as s/he likes, and that I rate the benefits of reduced deaths more highly than any disadvantage of the reduced consumption.

    Reply

  9. Careful, Chris. If the benefits of reduced deaths outweigh everything else in the world, oughtn’t the speed limit be 30 kph with cars built of sponge rubber? We’re trading off wealth against risks of death all the time, both personally and in policy. The usual benchmark has the value of a statistical life around $5 million, so if we want policy to be consistent across different domains, then it would make sense to tighten alcohol policy to the point where it costs about $5 million – in consumption benefits forgone, enforcement costs and the like – to save a life. I suspect it already costs rather more than that at current margins though and that further tightening wouldn’t pass cost-benefit. Recall also that problem drinkers are roughly half as responsive to policy as are moderate drinkers.

    Reply

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