(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 12.)
I’m going to surprise myself in this column by reluctantly conceding that the legal age for the purchase of liquor should be returned to 20.
For decades, I have argued in favour of liberalised liquor laws. And for the most part, I believe I have been proved right.
Thanks to gradual liberalisation, most of the alcohol drunk in New Zealand today is consumed in vastly more civilised conditions than when I began patronising pubs.
The primitive six o’clock swill, which encouraged men to knock back as much beer as possible in the limited time available before pubs closed (and what awful beer it was), was then still a recent memory.
Even after pub hours were extended till 10pm in 1967, New Zealand’s drinking culture left a lot to be desired.
Sure, hotel owners upgraded their bars and women started going to pubs, which inevitably improved male behaviour. But perverse licensing laws encouraged the notorious “booze barns” of the 1970s: big pubs surrounded by acres of car parks. Small wonder that the road toll peaked during that decade.
Nonetheless, the 70s also brought some modest but significant improvements – notably the introduction of the BYO licence that enabled people to take their own wine and beer to restaurants. That was the beginning of the café culture that we enjoy today.
Dining out had previously been something people did on special occasions in expensive licensed restaurants, but the BYO licence meant it gradually came to be regarded as a routine part of urban life.
With it, New Zealand’s drinking culture began to undergo a slow transformation. We were drinking in more congenial surroundings, in mixed company, and more often with food. All these were civilising influences.
The pace of reform picked up throughout the 80s and 90s, although liquor law changes were often confused, anomalous and piecemeal, reflecting a timid parliament that still treated liquor issues as political banana-skin territory.
The vociferous anti-liquor lobby – a strange alliance between religiously motivated campaigners and activists driven by an ideological agenda – fought the changes every step of the way. But over time, the law inexorably moved in the direction of liberalisation.
Limitations on opening hours were effectively abolished and supermarkets won the right to sell wine – although initially not on Sundays, when they were ludicrously required to hide their wine shelves lest we be tempted.
On the issue of opening hours, I thought we lurched from one extreme to another. But I applauded the overall trend.
And just as the reformers had expected, the changes led to a marked improvement in our drinking culture. If you treat people as adults capable of making their own intelligent decisions, they generally respond accordingly.
Contrary to the dire predictions of the wowser lobby, per capita consumption of alcohol declined from about 1975 onwards, with a particularly significant drop in the 1990s. What’s more, from 1985 onwards the road toll steadily fell.
So why, in 2017, is alcohol such an issue? TVNZ’s Sunday programme last week included an item – just the latest of many – showing young women almost literally legless from intoxication.
High-profile political aspirant Gareth Morgan wants the excise tax on alcohol increased and the liquor purchasing age lifted to 20. On talkback radio, callers overwhelmingly backed him.
The public mood appears to have swung back in favour of tighter controls. So where did it all go wrong?
There seems little doubt that the turning point came when Parliament voted in 1999 to lower the liquor purchasing age to 18. That was when per capita alcohol consumption started to rise again. It was also when the phrase “binge drinking” entered the nation’s vocabulary.
But let’s be clear. In this context, “binge drinking” means youth drinking. If we have a problem, that’s where it lies, and that’s where any law changes need to be directed.
A majority of parliamentarians believed in 1999 that young New Zealanders could be trusted to drink in a civilised fashion. I did too, but we were wrong.
They were given the opportunity to behave like adults, and they blew it. Spectacularly.
Young women, especially, have let us down. They seem to have adopted the view that equal rights mean the right to render yourself comatose in Courtenay Place – a perverse distortion of the “girls can do anything” mantra.
In this they were helped immeasurably by liquor industry entrepreneur Michael Erceg’s promotion of sweet, fizzy RTDs, which made alcohol palatable to a new market segment that didn’t care much for beer or wine.
My wife reckons we can’t blame young people and we shouldn’t expect 18-year-olds to behave like adults. My response is, why not? They expect to be treated like adults in every other respect. Besides, if 18-year-olds in European countries can handle their liquor, why can't young New Zealanders?
Perhaps they’ve led such protected, molly-coddled lives as children - protected from any behaviour deemed to be risky, even walking to school - that they run amok at their first taste of independence. Perhaps lollipops, rather than alcohol, would be commensurate with their level of maturity.
Whatever the reason, we’ve ended up in a very disheartening place. And if it takes a return to tougher laws to sort the problem out, then perhaps that’s what we must do.