Alcohol law changes ineffective at reducing harm - study

Law changes aimed at preventing alcohol harm aren't working, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Otago interviewed patients at Christchurch Hospital's emergency department in 2013 and 2017, to see if the "harm caused by the excessive or inappropriate consumption of alcohol" was being "minimised", as according to the wording of the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act 2012.

They found no change in the number of people being hurt as a direct result of recent alcohol intoxication - around one admission in 14.

The only significant change was in purchasing habits - in 2013 only 41.7 percent had bought their booze at a liquor store - that increased to 56.1 percent in 2017; and while two-thirds had bought their drinks at any off-licence in 2013, by 2017 that had gone up to 79.1 percent.

"Most of the people had bought the alcohol they drank from off-licence locations, like liquor stores and supermarkets. In most cases they had actually had their last drink in a private location."

Most patients' last drink before ending up in the emergency department was consumed at a private location, not a bar. It is generally much cheaper to buy alcohol at an off-licence than at a licenced venue.

Around a quarter of patients under the influence of alcohol had drunk 15 or more standard drinks. Eighteen percent had consumed at least 20.

Patients ranged in age from 14 to 87.

Researcher James Foulds says local council policy is the best way to crack down on alcohol-related harm.

"It's really to do with the availability of alcohol, what it costs and how it's advertised. All of those interventions can be put in place by local government."

Christchurch City Council actually tried to put in stricter controls in 2013, without success.

"That was held up through the court right through to 2018, when it was eventually put on hold," said Dr Foulds. "Essentially we've seen five years of stagnation in Christchurch."

He says the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act needs a rethink.

The study was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal. In an accompanying editorial, Sally Casswell of Massey University said "education, promoted as the only strategy by the industry, is not a cost-effective, or even effective, solution".

She says the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act needs work.

"The decision to allow an appeal against local authorities' Local Alcohol Policies (LAPs) in the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act has resulted in unusual visibility of the influence process. The opportunity to engage legal representation to challenge proposed restrictions on trading hours has illustrated the very different financial resources available to the retailers of alcohol versus those supporting strategic restriction of availability.

Fewer than one-in-three local authorities have managed to put in LAPs as a result, she said.