December 2014 marked one year since the full implementation of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 (Act).

It is still very early days to assess how the Act is achieving its objectives of ensuring alcohol is sold, supplied and consumed in a safe and responsible way, and harm is minimised. However, it has brought about a number of significant changes which are starting to make their presence felt. 

In 2010, the Law Commission made a series of 153 recommendations which it issued in a report following a review of the regulatory framework for the sale and supply of liquor. The Act set down a framework which adopted 126 of these recommendations in full or in part, while the remaining areas of contention have been dealt with, or are in the process of being further considered via other avenues.   There are the inevitable teething problems with a new piece of legislation and these will continue into 2015, but the result will hopefully be a stable and consistent framework for alcohol legislation and regulation that all stakeholders can work with.

The Act introduced a number of initiatives to emphasise that a responsible host (including parents as well as the hospitality industry) can play a key part in ensuring people consume alcohol safely and responsibly. Obligations to provide a reasonable range of food, non-alcoholic and low alcohol drinks, arrangements for safe transport, and free drinking water have all been widely adopted and encouraged.   For example, the Health Promotion Agencies’ recent “No More Beersies” campaign played up the availability of free drinking water in its spoof ads. DB Breweries supported this campaign and had “No Beersies” taps (i.e. water) plumbed at various venues of on-premise operators keen to get on board. These provisions also come with high penalties of $2,000 for parents and staff, and $10,000 for licensees as well as a possible suspension of their licence designed to have a significant deterrent effect.

Of key importance in the Act are a range of “on-the-spot” fines for the public, bringing in a further element of individual responsibility.  For example, infringement notices and a $250 fine will be payable if you present a fake ID or use someone else’s ID to buy alcohol, as well as drinking in an alcohol ban area.  These are extremely useful for police enforcement of minor yet time-consuming infringements that will have a significant effect in setting a high standard of expected behaviour.

When we take a look at what is happening outside the Act, many of the Law Commission’s other recommendations have been or are being considered. For example, the drink driving limit for adult drivers was lowered as at 1 December 2014. Much media attention has also been given to the Act’s related cousin the “Local Alcohol Policy” (LAP), allowing territorial authorities to develop optional LAPS, and giving communities more say in this process. The LAP process is proving to be rigorous exercise but it is better that they are thoroughly tested and debated, as they will set the blueprint for at least the next six years.  Only time will tell whether the correct balance has been struck once the final LAPs are implemented during 2015. 

In the area of alcohol advertising and sponsorship, the Government responded to the Law Commission report by setting up an independent panel to consider and recommend to Ministers whether further restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship were needed to reduce alcohol-related harm. 

Similarly, the Ministry of Justice issued a report in April 2014 after it investigated the impact and effectiveness of a minimum price regime in reducing harmful alcohol consumption. Overall, no compelling evidence was found that raising the cost of alcohol was the right approach. The Ministry recommended that a minimum pricing regime should not be considered for a further five years once the Act and other alcohol reforms have had some time to become embedded. 

Contrary to some commentary which has been dismissive of the Act because it does not incorporate all the Law Commission recommendations, the fact remains that this was an extensive review of alcohol laws, the core issues have been or are being considered, and there are some significant changes to the way that industry, individuals and parents consume, sell and supply alcohol. While the Act may still be experiencing a few teething problems, particularly around enforcement and consistency issues, there is a strong view that the industry needs a stable and enforceable piece of legislation to work with and it appears that the Act may well be on track to reaching this goal.   

The Health Promotion Agency has a range of resources and publications designed to help people understand and comply with the Sale and Supply of Alcohol laws. See the agency's website at www.alcohol.org.nz.

This article first appeared in DrinksBiz.