By Eric Crampton 12/06/2018


Man, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

The Science Media Centre pointed me to reporting on some new work look at what’s happened consequent to National’s Sale & Supply of Alcohol Act 2012.

It always felt like a spot where some really good work could be done. Different locales implemented different district licensing plans at different times, so you could run a panel study looking at how different measures worked in different places.

But that isn’t what this is. And what it is… well, let’s go through it.

So the Science Media Centre points to this Newsroom piece by Farah Hancock. It doesn’t start well.

Alcohol industry appeals have “muted” potential benefits of legislation aimed at reducing the estimated $14.5 million a day cost of alcohol harm, a new study finds.

Massey University research shows the only effect of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 (SSAA) is a reduction in alcohol availability after 4am in cities.

The alcohol industry appealed 30 of 32 alcohol policies proposed by councils to reduce harmful drinking.

Lead researcher Stephen Randerson said alcohol related harm was estimated to cost New Zealand $5.3 billion per year.

“That was in 2005, so it’s probably going to have risen since then. The things that feed in to this are the cost of emergency services including police work where alcohol is involved in at least one in three call-outs, the emergency department and the health cost of chronic disease caused by alcohol.”

Recall that the $5.3 billion figure cited was from BERL’s decade-old work and was their headline figure for the cost of alcohol and joint alcohol-and-other-drug use. The alcohol-alone figure was $4.8 billion. And that figure was very very wrong. Matt, Brad and I explained the problems in it in this NZMJ piece. A few of those problems:

  • Counting as a social cost every dime spent on alcohol by anyone consuming more than about 2 pints of beer per day, including all alcohol excise paid by that cohort;
  • Double-counting productivity costs of lost wages and VSL measures of statistical lives lost that encompass productivity costs;
  • Counting as social cost every cost incurred by a heavier drinker, but not netting from those costs any benefits experienced by those drinkers.

A bad stat is hard to kill. And folks citing those kinds of stats who should know better, well, it tells me to be careful when reading what they’ve done.

And that brings us to the piece out in Friday’s NZ Medical Journal by Randerson, Casswell and Huckle that’s the basis for all this [Why oh Why can’t news outlets just link to the study?!]

The piece uses survey methods developed in Casswell’s International Alcohol Control study to structure interviews with 36 informants (main sources, according to the article, being police, liquor licensing inspectors, and public health officials) in early 2014 and early 2016, with 26 of the informants interviewed in both rounds of interviews. Plus a few police who do alcohol breathalyser checkpoints.

Those informants scored a pile of things, like their view of regulatory compliance and enforcement, alcohol availability, trading hours, compliance with hours, difficulty of obtaining new licences, purchase age enforcement, and several other indicators.

So I guess I’ll have to keep hoping somebody credible does the panel data work I’ve been hoping to see – this is just a survey of what police, public health, and liquor licensing inspectors think about things.

Ok, so where’s the evidence on big bad industry thwarting local communities? Here’s the relevant section – there’s also a bit in the conclusion I’ll quote later.

Local alcohol policies

Only five LAPs were in force by the end of 2015, although 32 of 67 territorial authorities had produced a draft or provisional policy by this time (pers. comm. Jackson, 2016). Appeals were the most commonly reported impediment to developing an LAP. Some local authorities halted or deferred developing a LAP until appeals in other districts had been decided. Other difficulties cited were finding a compromise between the commercial goals of businesses and alcohol-related harm in the community; opposition from business interests, including the hospitality industry and supermarket chains; and time and cost.

Now if you’ve been paying attention to the LAPs, you’d know that there’s some truth here. When Nelson-Tasman went for their LAP, they decided to hold back until Wellington’s had been decided. But it wasn’t industry that was appealing Wellington’s LAP, it was the police and medical people who didn’t like that Wellington wanted a 5am closing time and were trying to litigate them down to 3am.

Disclosure – I was hired by the Hospitality Association to provide evidence on the international literature on bar closing times. Didn’t wind up presenting in Nelson because all that was deferred to the Wellington decision, but I did have a lot of fun presenting in Wellington in 2014. Bottom line: it’s a stretch to expect any major changes in harms with a couple hours’ difference in closing times, but it’s likely a good idea to have bottle shops close before the bars do.

Anyway, the police and medical lobbyists were going to have a tough time getting anything more restrictive than the national default hours in Wellington because, well, Wellington could always just choose not to have an LAP and stick with the default. But at least I got to have a bit of fun.

But all that Casswell’s team has in this survey is respondents (police officers, licensing officials, and public health people) complaining that businesses selling alcohol will often object to the licencing plans that police and public health people want.

LAPs have significant potential to restrict trading hours, outlet density and location, but too few were in force in 2015 to affect the alcohol environment nationally. Appeals against LAPs deterred and delayed their implementation. Although medical officers of health and police mounted several appeals, appeals from off-licence alcohol suppliers were more widespread, and most commonly resulted in the relaxation or removal of restrictions from LAPs.29 In light of the substantial commercial conflict of interest which alcohol suppliers have with the SSAA’s aim of minimising harm from the excessive consumption of alcohol,30 steps to protect the LAP development process from their influence appear desirable. This could facilitate policies which are more likely to reduce alcohol-related harm, and reduce development time and cost.

So the problem they’ve identified with the Act is that tribunals and courts sometimes wind up siding with industry objections to local plans. Like, if industry were just raising objections that wasted time and were never upheld, then you could make an abuse of process case and hope that the courts might start awarding costs or something.

But the big SHORE-team complaint here is that sometimes LAPs are made more liberal after industry appeals. If the Police objected to some bit of criminal law procedure that made it harder for them to get convictions for people the courts wind up finding innocent, or that make it easier for people successfully to appeal convictions, I’d hope we’d want stronger basis for changes than just that observation from some surveyed police officers.