John Williamson: We need political will to tackle alcohol behind the wheel

Easy access to booze is having an impact on our roads in the form of alcohol-related crashes. Photo / NZME


Earlier this month I spent a day and a bit back in council chambers, attending, listening to and giving evidence in opposition to the application for a new bottle store at Maunu, not far from where we live.

The hearing became a possibility after the enactment of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, which gives communities more say in the alcohol retail environment that they live in.

An applicant must present an application and then publicly advertise and display it. If the application is opposed then a public hearing before the council’s Liquor Licensing Committee, chaired by an independent Commissioner, takes place.

The committee, having heard the evidence, asked questions and satisfied itself about all matters before it makes the decision to grant or decline the application.

In this case, the application was strongly opposed by the Maunu community. Forty-two independently written objections as well as the three parties with statutory status, the police, the medical officer of health and the Whangārei District Council licensing inspector, all opposed the application.

So the parties lawyered up, with Auckland, Wellington and local barristers to represent their cases.

The principal issues were the suitability of the applicant, and how the alcohol-related social harm and amenity and good order of the area, might be affected by the operation of a new bottle store in Maunu.

My interest was not just as a concerned resident about the potential proliferation of alcohol availability in our area, with its increasing issues of alcohol-related harm and drink-driving, but also in learning about how vested alcohol interests go about addressing the increasing alcohol social issues.

The lack of insight about the latter was clearly evident. When asked by the commissioner about the national annual cost of alcohol-related social harm, the applicants’ response was, “about two million dollars”.

The commissioner responded, “It’s eight billion dollars, now why did you not know that?”

The $8 billion dollar figure has been around for over 10 years, is consistently quoted and has not been seriously challenged by the industry.

It is balanced by about $1.1b collected from the industry in excise but there is a clear imbalance of social harm cost.

The applicant had no idea about the scale of social harm caused by the product being sought to have the privilege of selling in the Maunu area.

It defies logic, reason and common sense to suggest that increasing the accessibility and availability of takeaway alcohol, by granting a new bottle store licence in Maunu, will minimise the alcohol-related social harm in the communities surrounding Maunu.

That decision, though, is in the hands of the Whangārei District Licensing Committee.

The harms referred to are across the spectrum including premature death, physical and sexual abuse, children born with alcohol-related damage, cancer susceptibility, hospital emergency costs, community disorder and road trauma.

The lack of general insight into the role and costs of alcohol in road trauma was recently brought to light by figures released by ACC.

These figures indicated that between 2016 and 2020 nearly 10,000 claims relating to alcohol-related crashes were accepted. That’s over five claims per day with an average lifetime cost to the taxpayer of $117,000 per claim.

That’s a $1.1b cost to us of alcohol-related road trauma harm over that five-year period.

The specific costs, funded by ACC levies on motor vehicles and petrol, include compensation for lost income, medical treatment and rehabilitation. Where someone has died, payments are made to the surviving spouse and children, which include funeral costs, childcare and loss of income.

But these costs do not include the emotional toll on loved ones, and frontline and emergency staff dealing with alcohol-related road trauma.

The thing with alcohol-related crashes is that they are preventable and part of that prevention is the political will to make alcohol more expensive and less available.

That’s what the Maunu community wants the district licencing committee to decide.

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