How police alcohol activism risks overstepping the mark

Dr Eric Crampton
The Post
17 June, 2024

When Guyon Espiner reported on a police estimate of ‘$7.8b harm from booze’, I was curious whether the figure was the old BERL alcohol cost zombie back again from the dead to torment the living.

The BERL number included drinkers’ spending on their own alcohol – not a ‘social cost’ by any reasonable standard. Other costs were counted twice. It was …unsound. Only about a fifth of BERL’s number could count as a social cost by a more standard method.

So, I asked Radio New Zealand for the original documents, hoping to find a source for the figure. No source was cited, but police communications staff later confirmed that the number was BERL’s.

The BERL number was the least interesting part of the documents.

In his interview with Espiner, Police Commissioner Coster was quoted as suggesting the government should restrict bottle-shops to daytime hours only and increase the price of alcohol.

Jordan Williams, lawyer and spokesperson for the New Zealand Taxpayers Union, said the Commissioner was acting “as a constitutional barbarian. There is a long-held constitutional convention that Police – especially leadership – enforce the law, not lobby to change it.

The released documents suggest that police lobbying on alcohol goes well beyond a few off-the-cuff comments from the Commissioner.

In two separate presentations to Waikato Police District Tasking and Coordination, Inspector Hamish Milne, Manager for Alcohol Harm Prevention, noted “Police strategic/national opportunities” around harm prevention.

The presentation made the case to “use every opportunity to influence policy makers” to “increase cost (tax)”, to implement “minimum unit prices”, to “restrict marketing and sponsorship (we wouldn’t conceive of Benson & Hedges Cricket now; why is alcohol sponsorship allowed?)”, and for legislative review.

The 2022 presentation also suggested removing potential appeals to local alcohol policies – amusing for those who remember the Police’s objections to Wellington’s Proposed Local Alcohol Policy in 2014. The council wanted 5 am bar closing times. Police and health authorities appealed for 3 am closing times, and Wellington decided to stick with the national default of 4 am instead.

The presentation suggested that police operational responses should include dedicated Alcohol Health Prevention Officers supported and empowered to, among other things, “seek relevant license conditions (e.g. no single sales except craft beer or at a minimum unit price)”.

The documents also include the suggestion that police “get license conditions imposed that reduce harm (bottle stores close during school finish, don’t sell to people in school uniforms, no single sales except craft beer etc.)”

This could be fair enough if a Local Alcohol Policy had recommended such conditions in specific cases. Some District Licensing Committees, like Christchurch’s, have issued practice notes on what they view as consistent with the harm-reduction purposes of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act – like restrictions against selling single-serve drinks for less than $6 per unit.

But the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority, which sits over the District Licensing Committees that decide on local licenses, has been taking issue with objections against licence applications and renewals that are overly generalised.

In its 2023 decision on the Otautau Hotel’s license renewal, ARLA reminded District Licensing Committees that they should not use licensing to set policy. The Local Alcohol Policy sets the policy. It also warned against “generalised objections” to licenses that fail to demonstrate a causal link between the grant of a specific license and harm.

So, police are not just lobbying for changes to alcohol policy. They also have been pushing for license requirements that, if appropriate, ought to have been part of Local Alcohol Policies to begin with. A demonstrably flawed measure of the social cost of alcohol has contributed to the mess.

It’s particularly frustrating when the RAND Corporation, an American research organisation, keeps putting up new studies demonstrating the merits of a different approach to alcohol harm reduction.

Over a decade ago, South Dakota judges started imposing no-alcohol conditions for repeat drink-drivers. If a monitoring bracelet detected alcohol, a night or two in the cells the next weekend was certain. The policy makes it easy for released offenders to decline invitations to go drinking with mates – everyone knows that a night in the cells would surely follow.

RAND’s work shows the policy not only reduced repeat drink-driving but also reduced family violence and mortality.

If Police are going to do constitutional harm by lobbying for legislative change and citing nonsense alcohol cost figures while doing so, they could at least aim at policies that actually reduce crime.

What matters for policy is not whether the overall social cost figure on alcohol is large or small, but whether any specific policy addressing it would do more good than harm.

Rather than punishing all drinkers, the South Dakota Sobriety Programme targets and demonstrably reduces the harm from drinkers who cause harm.

And the Ministry of Health, who with ACC commissioned BERL’s zombie cost figure a decade and a half ago, should disavow the figure.

To read the full article on The Post website, click here.

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