Alcohol industry vows to take on health lobby's 'hammer'

The alcohol industry is tired of getting hammered.

On Monday it announced the formation of the New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council (NZABC), which aims to "balance the discussion" against people who "want to ban and stop for the sake of it".

"It's a collection of industry groups and alcohol businesses that have come together and said look, we need one voice," executive director Nick Leggett told The AM Show.

"Eighty percent of New Zealanders have a drink, and the vast majority of those people do so responsibly. What we want to do is ensure that laws and regulations are put in place to recognise that and to ensure the rights of those of us who like to have the odd drink are not overly impinged."

Police statistics show around one-third of all apprehensions involve a suspect under the influence of alcohol, and it's a factor in half of all violent crimes. They've called for crackdowns on opening hours at bars, while health campaigners have argued for booze to be taken out of supermarkets and the issuing of fewer licences to sell it.

Otago University addiction Doug Sellman, spokesman for Alcohol Healthwatch, last month called supermarkets "the biggest drug dealers in the country".

"We're not viewing alcohol as it is - it's a drug - and we're making it very available," he told Newshub.

Mr Leggett says anti-alcohol campaigners like Prof Sellman are using "a hammer to crack a peanut" because most Kiwis don't have a problem with their drinking.

"There's been a massive progression in particularly the last three decades in terms of the amount we're drinking on average every year, the harm that's being done.

"Young people are leading the way in terms of being more responsible. Binge drinking has halved in the last 18 years among young people, they're delaying the age when they first have a drink."

Nick Leggett
Nick Leggett. Photo credit: The AM Show

Statistics NZ figures show the drinking habits for more than a third of people aged 18-24 could be potentially hazardous - regularly consuming six more drinks in a single session.

In 2007, 83.6 percent of Kiwi adults reported having at least one drink in the year before. A decade later, that fell slightly to 79.3.Amongst those aged 18-24, it fell from 89.1 to 84.8 percent between 2007 and 2012, but has since largely stabilised to around 83.7 percent.

"The industry would like to understand more about why young people are making positive choices and double down on that," said Mr Leggett.

One solution offered by health campaigners is minimum pricing - setting a minimum price that can be charged per standard drink. This would leave the cost of a premium tipple untouched, whilst raising the price of cheap liquor.

The Drug Foundation says if a minimum price of $1.20 was set per standard drink, a 750ml bottle of wine with 13 percent alcohol content would cost a minimum of $9.24 - which most do already - but a 3L cask that would normally sell for $23 would now cost at least $36.

The NZABC says implementing a minimum price won't stop alcoholics.
The NZABC says implementing a minimum price won't stop alcoholics. Photo credit: File

Raising the price has arguably put a dent in smoking, but Mr Leggett says it won't work to curb alcoholism.

"They reduce the alcohol consumption of those of us that drink reasonably, and the people who have a problem with drinking actually carry on. They find other ways to source their alcohol."

Mr Leggett was formerly a Labour member and Mayor of Porirua. He ran for the Wellington Mayoralty as an independent, but was defeated by Labour's Justin Lester and promptly switched allegiance to National - which counts former tobacco lobbyist Christopher Bishop amongst its ranks. Disgraced ex-National MP Todd Barclay was also an ex-tobacco industry worker.

The NZABC isn't just fighting for what it says are drinkers' rights. It's other primary goal is to promote "the enormous economic contribution of the alcohol, retail and hospitality industry to New Zealand and its role in contributing to employment, revenue, national and regional tourism, hospitality, major events and NZ Inc".

"It's a collection of industry groups and alcohol businesses that have come together and said look, we need one voice," said Mr Leggett.