Tuesday, April 23, 2024

New laws take sobering shot at safe alcohol consumption

Justice Minister, Kiri Allan says amendments to alcohol legislation will remove the ability to appeal local alcohol policies (LAPs), which are currently costing councils and ratepayers millions of dollars in legal fees.

The Minister said the current appeal process sees alcohol companies and supermarkets thwarting efforts by local councils to limit the sale of alcohol in their communities.

“The law isn’t working as intended. Local communities should be able to set their own rules to reduce alcohol harm, but are being blocked at every step by the booze industry,” she said.

“When the Act was introduced by the National government, it aimed to ensure the safe and responsible sale and consumption of alcohol. But the Act hasn’t worked as intended, creating a system that leaves communities struggling and silenced in their fight against the powerful alcohol industry.”

In Auckland, a provisional LAP has been in the appeal process for seven years, at a reported cost to the Council of more than $1 million in legal fees. The matter is currently before the Supreme Court, which has reserved its decision.

“There are similar stories in Wellington and Christchurch, where Councils have abandoned their efforts to put harm reduction plans in place after facing expensive and lengthy legal opposition. In total five councils, including the four largest authorities accounting for half of the total population, have halted or abandoned their efforts to implement LAPs,” the Minister said.

“Recently I met with a diverse range of communities in South Auckland who shared with me their experiences in battling against alcohol harm and attempting to reduce the ever-increasing availability of alcohol. It was distressing to see the community prevented from taking action by the deep pockets and legal manoeuvres of those who benefit from alcohol sales.  

“Ten years ago when the Act was brought in by National, Labour warned it would been weak, wouldn’t achieve the desired outcomes and that we would have to revisit this issue again, because of their failure. My top priority is to bring power back to the people. That’s why the first phase will focus on immediate reforms to licensing procedures,” she said.

The Government is also looking to amend rules around the public’s ability to object to a new or renewed alcohol licence application and how objectors can make their case at a licensing hearing.

“Because the hearings are legalistic in nature, I’ve heard concerns that the current process can be too formal, with some community groups saying they’ve felt intimidated and harassed while under cross-examination by highly experienced lawyers representing the interests of those in the alcohol industry.”

“It was always envisaged that people would have the opportunity to be heard when it comes to how alcohol is sold locally. I’ve heard loud and clear that this part of the Act is not working,” the Minister said.

A Bill proposing procedural changes to the alcohol licensing process will be introduced this year, with the aim of passing it into law by mid-next year.

“These amendments are just the first steps in fixing alcohol laws. The Government will be doing future work to look at licensing structures and processes, marketing and sponsorship, pricing, and changes to ensure the law is responsive to new products and retail models.”

“While no decisions have been made our intention is to tilt the balance away from the alcohol industry towards giving community a greater voice and ensuring we are doing more to address the significant impact alcohol has on our communities, whānau and health system.

“In recent years, the Government commissioned two reports that emphasised alcohol as a health and justice issue and recommended strengthening alcohol regulations.

“These reports and their recommendations will help shape decisions on our next steps,” Ms Allan said.

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