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Alcohol regulation 'low-hanging fruit' which Government can easily enact, expert says

Mental health experts are calling on the Government to take urgent action on New Zealand's alcohol issue, as recommended by the mental health and addiction inquiry.

Among the alarming statistics, mental health and addiction experts cite a cost of almost $8 billion a year to the country due to drinking and alcohol being implicated in one third of all suicides.

It also found disproportionate drug and alcohol addiction amongst prison inmates.

However, the Government has not meaningfully addressed the issue.

National Addiction Centre director Simon Adamson called the Government’s soft response to the inquiry "the $8 billion question."

"It's not just this Government, it's successive governments and our inclinations to answer that question is to ask, 'Well, who benefits from continued heavy consumption of alcohol?' and that would seem to be the alcohol industry," he said on TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"We do have strong lobbyists in this country and I think they're bending the ears of politicians more strongly than the public are.

"There is widespread public concern at the extent of alcohol-correlated harm. The country wants the Government to show some leadership on better regulation around alcohol."

Mr Adamson said the centre is struggling to understand why politicians are unwilling to properly address the concerns of the local community.

"The inquiry into mental health and addiction really had a pretty tough job of trying to identify the issues and find solutions for quite a complex area, but you know, alcohol regulation is one of the low-hanging fruit; it's something that a government can be easily and effectively enacted.

"The inquiry didn’t have to come up with a plan as to how to do that, the plan was already there in successive reports from government commissions on what needs to be done. There’s very clear international evidence on what works and how well it works – governments just seem to be tone deaf to it."

Mr Adamson said he would like to see a series of changes, including increasing its price and raising the drinking age.

"What we know as the big-hitters, the things that have the most impact, are to reduce the marketing of alcohol, so we don’t need to be encouraging the population to drink more; to increase the price, and the impact of that will be that people will drink according to their budget and drink somewhat less; to raise the drinking age – there were efforts to do that didn’t succeed previously; and to reduce availability.

"Time and time again, we hear communities’ concern at just how many outlets there are, what they’re operating hours are, and the limited ability of members of the community to have any influence over that."

He said while reducing its marketing and increasing its price worked well for tobacco, it's "important to highlight a difference here – we're not trying to ban alcohol."

"We don't want the country to stop drinking, we're trying to reduce the harm. We accept that it’s part of our community. People can use in a low-risk way unlike tobacco, but we’ve just got such a liberalised policy setting here that there is too much consumption, particularly amongst some segments of society."

Mr Adamson said the best way to achieve a balance in people’s consumption of alcohol is to "accept it's part of society, that there can be some pleasure from its consumption."

"It's tied into all sorts of social rituals and so on, but that it's not just any old product and it shouldn’t be marketed as heavily as it is, and widely and easily available as it is and we need to take particular care with risk populations and that particularly involves youth, so just adjusting those policy settings so we can dial back the level of consumption."

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National Addiction Centre director Simon Adamson discussed the mental health and addiction inquiry. Source: Breakfast