Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bringing Back The Fear

I recently applied to renew Hashigo Zake’s on licence. Although the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 doesn’t come into effect until December 18, we have been in a transition phase and the application process takes into account certain provisions of the new act. So it included a “CPTED checklist” that we had never been required to fill in before. (To see it, scroll to page 8 here.) We have to answer yes or no to assertions such as:

Area behind the bar is raised to improve visibility
Premises is laid out so staff can monitor patrons at all times
There are no obstructions within the bar causing blind spots
CCTV is installed
Patrons are aware of the CCTV system

(Fortunately for Hashigo Zake, at a recent briefing to the Wellington hospitality industry it was implied that the standards being tested for here wouldn’t be applied to renewal applications, just new applications.)

So what does this tell us about how authorities envisage licensed premises operating under the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act 2012? I was reminded of the panopticon, a design conceived in the 18th century for institutions such as prisons, asylums and day care facilities. The concept was of a design that ensured that all inmates could be observed from a single point and while the staff at that single point might only be looking in one direction at a time, the inmates had to assume that they were being watched at all time and would moderate their behaviour accordingly.

The idea that bars are going to be required to be laid out like an 18th century prison is chilling enough. It’s also dazzlingly stupid. In a busy bar, staff behind the bar don’t waste their time peering over the heads of customers to look for intoxicated customers, half of whom – statistically - will have their backs to the bar anyway. There’s a far more effective way. It’s called collecting glasses. At Hashigo Zake, like most bars, every corner of our premises is visited every five minutes or so by a member of staff. The fact that we have things called rooms, which it seems will be an automatic fail in the brave new world, doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to our ability to monitor what is going on.

But early indications are that bar staff are expected to transition from dispensers of drinks, good service and advice to a kind of detention monitor. And bars will be required to resemble crèches.

So when and why did New Zealand become so afraid of alcohol and drinkers? Actually that’s the wrong question because the answer is the 19th century. When and why did our fear of alcohol come back with such ferocity?

Now that’s a complicated question. Maybe this will help: the Ministry of Justice just released the findings of a survey into the perceptions of crime among the public of New Zealand. It showed that people’s perception of rates of crime were completely at odds with reality. Official statistics show that crime is at a 33-year low but the majority of respondents were convinced it was rising. Someone (the media are deemed to be the culprits in this case) is exaggerating the problem and misleading the public.

Could there be a similar effect with alcohol abuse? That some party or parties, for whatever reason, are overstating New Zealand’s problems with alcohol abuse?

From Geoffrey Palmer’s Law Commission report of 2010 to the expert witnesses at the Wellington City Council’s hearings in 2013 into its own Local Alcohol Policy, New Zealand came about as close as it ever will to unanimous agreement on a topic – that something new and terrible called bingedrinkingculture has emerged and needs to be tackled. And our collective penance is the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 and its upcoming, accompanying Local Alcohol Policies.

But what is the compelling evidence of said bingedrinkingculture that has made this new flood of measures necessary? Let’s see. Here’s a graph from within the aforementioned Law Commission report: 
It shows that alcohol consumption fell steadily from the late ‘70s until around 1999. That includes the year 1989, when that year’s Sale of Liquor Act rationalised and, generally, liberalised our liquor laws. The figures rose again in 1999, when we stopped prosecuting 18 and 19 year olds for purchasing alcohol. It’s hardly a surprise that removing the threat of prosecution for a chunk of the population led to a rise in consumption. Now this graph is obviously a little out of date, but we can tell from here that the trend since this graph was plotted has been downward.

In other words, nothing to see here. Consumption of alcohol over the last thirty to forty years has fallen. 

Perhaps there’s something more specific going on, other than just overall consumption. That is certainly the message we’ve been fed for years now :- the problem isn’t simply alcohol and the silent majority of responsible users, it’s the bingedrinkingculture. Somewhere, out there, some portion of our society is drinking alcohol by the binge-full, in ways that are new and disturbing and a crisis for all of us. And that portion of society is, specifically, the kids.

Take this report for example. There are few specific, measurable facts from Dr Paul Quigley of Wellington Hospital or Sergeant Andrew Kowalczyk about what makes the current bingedrinkingculture different. It’s the intent that’s different, apparently. Dr Quigley says “now, they intended to get smashed, to get wasted.” Sgt Kowalczyk says “where you used to sit around, and you’d drink over a jug of beer, and you’d talk about the races, now it’s like, especially the youth, ‘let’s get pissed as quick as possible’”. 

With all due respect to these sincere and knowledgeable people, but did they sleep through the last fifty years? How much collective amnesia do we have as a society? At secondary school in the 80s friends of mine would do exactly what Dr Quigley and Sgt Kowalczyk complain about with exactly the same bleak, nihilistic attitude. Then when we got to university we were mocked by our elders for being amateurs.

As far as I can tell, the only empirical measure that researchers have to quantify the elusive bingedrinkingculture among youth are surveys. That’s right – all we know about the drinking habits of our troubled youth is what they tell us. (“So, teen survey respondent, here’s your first question: How often do you and your mates get wasted?”) Unless and until the actual alcohol intake of the respondents is accurately recorded the absolute numbers coming out of the surveys are worthless. 

But I will accept that the trends over successive surveys (provided their methodologies are consistent) can tell us something. So what do they tell us? Well according to the Ministry of Health, between the 2005/6 survey and the 2011/12 survey, rates of “hazardous drinking” in New Zealand fell. But why should that be a surprise? We know from Statistics New Zealand that alcohol consumption in the same period dropped. So it is entirely consistent and predictable that so-called “hazardous drinking” should have dropped.

Parenthetically, is this a good time to question the Ministry’s use of the term “hazardous drinking”? It seems that teetotallers have a lower life expectancy than moderate drinkers of alcohol. D’oh, I’m sorry I got that wrong. Teetotallers have a lower life expectancy than moderate and heavy drinkers of alcohol. So while I’m sure that by “hazardous drinkers” they meant “heavy drinkers”, maybe they should consider inverting their terminology.

But to diminish the orthodoxy that bingedrinkingculture is here, it’s a problem and it’s a new problem is to overlook the elephant in the room:- Courtenay Place at 3am on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Yes it’s a vile time and place and it leaves me demoralised as it does just about anyone I know. It’s a symbol of the one fact that almost no-one can disagree on :- that a number of people in our society become very ugly when drunk.

Thirty years ago we definitely didn’t have whole precincts in our cities like Courtenay Place where drinking, yelling, staggering, snogging and vomiting went on well into the next morning. The bars weren’t generally open late enough and not that many people stayed in town after midnight. But if alcohol consumption has fallen over the same period, where have all these hordes of late night revellers come from and who was doing their share of alcohol consumption previously?

The answer, I suggest, is the suburbs. In fact it’s the only explanation that makes any sense, given that per capita alcohol consumption peaked in New Zealand in the late 70s, in the era of 10pm closing. Back then parties often started when the pub closed and depended on revellers arriving with multi-packs of beer or wine. And many would stay until they consumed the stash that they’d brought with them.

The Christchurch earthquake demonstrated what happens when our cities lose their nightlife. In the year or so immediately following the Christchurch earthquake complaints to the Christchurch City Council about noise from suburban parties soared. In the last year, as the city’s nightlife recovered they’ve fallen again.

New Zealanders do not lose their resourcefulness when someone hides the drinks. My father, coincidentally, recently told me how he and his friends planned for their annual Old Boys Ball in the 50s. It was generally held in the evening at an unlicensed cabaret. So during the afternoon patrons individually dropped in at the venue to leave a hip flask of something distilled in a locker, to access later. Then they’d take crates of beer to someone’s home and refresh themselves in advance. Pre-loading and side-loading:– anyone claiming that they’re a recent invention is delusional.

Hoarding alcohol is a rational response to restrictions on availability. And buying in bulk has the advantage of being a money saver. It’s also far more likely to lead to over-consumption. A patron at a bar generally buys a drink at a time, at a price that incorporates the bar’s costs, from a worker who risks conviction for selling a drink to someone who’s intoxicated. But someone who has taken a large volume of alcohol to a party and has left that drink at arm’s reach has no brake on their consumption and probably has an incentive to finish what they brought.

The earlier the bottle store or supermarket closes, the greater the lengths that a determined drinker will go to to make sure he or she doesn't run out later in the evening.

So as ugly as zones like Wellington’s Courtenay Place can be, are they doing New Zealand (and our suburbs) an enormous favour, by bringing our most determined party-goers into one precinct? There their drinking can be moderated and when the worst happens they’re more likely to be seen to, instead of being left unconscious at the bottom of a suburban garden.

Again – does it need to be repeated? The liberalisation of New Zealand’s liquor law in 1989 coincided with a reduction in consumption. In fact this effect has been repeated throughout New Zealand’s history and it has been documented. Not that anyone thought to take into account the findings of Paul Christoffel’s 2006 thesis, “Removing Temptation: New Zealand’s Alcohol Restrictions, 1881-2005”. The law commission report saw fit to quote from some of his historical background. But they never bothered to mention the core finding of his research, which was that the availability theory (greater availability of alcohol leading to greater consumption) is patently wrong. In fact the historian wasn’t consulted at all during the drafting and debate of the new Sale and Supply of Liquor Act.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the new act’s flaws. Here are a few more:
  • Accompanying the act are new, much higher, fees for holders of liquor licences. Now remember that an enormous portion of the income that a licence holder derives from selling alcohol goes to the government in excise tax. But an intentionally punitive new fees regime has been imposed as well. Making the selling of alcohol uneconomic is a petty and stupid way of penalising the industry. Additional compliance costs are just going to make operators look for ways to take some of the risk back out of their business – probably by looking for deals with suppliers that hinge on increases in turnover.
  • The cost of getting a duty manager’s certification for the purposes of the act are roughly doubling. At Hashigo Zake we consciously get as many of our staff as possible qualified as duty managers. It’s a good way to make sure everyone understands the law and our responsibilities. Now we’ve been given a financial disincentive for doing this.
  • One of the measures of the new act is the outlawing of advertising of discounts of more than a certain percentage. However it was pointed out at a briefing recently that advertising such discounts with signs inside a bar or bottle store is legal. What's more there is nothing to stop a customer from taking a photo of such signage and posting it on the facebook page of the outlet. In other words, a much heralded component of the law comes with a built-in loophole.
In short, New Zealand’s new law looks like a blunder from conception to implementation. It’s based on a phony moral panic and incorporates a package of measures that are more likely to lead to irresponsible drinking practices. It seems to have been designed by people who are afraid of alcohol and want everyone else to be, regardless of whether that is healthy.


  1. Good article, with many good points raised and a few good chuckles had. I'm a relatively young person and have recently been mocked by my elders for being an 'amateur' (read: bringing a two litre tiger to a party, instead of a slab).
    I also have to chuckle at the comments of the esteemed Dr, whom I distinctly remember refusing service to at a certain beer-bar, a couple of years back for being, as the youth of today would say: "absolutely bloody wankered". His own memories of that night might be a little less distinct than mine.

  2. I'm not sure how we were meant to get good non-partisan advice from that Law Commission .

  3. If you nodded in agreement with anything above, you'll probably be ecstatic to read this: