People sometimes say that the law is a blunt instrument. Roughly translated, what they often seem to mean is “I don’t like this law”.
The comment holds a measure of truth. When the law tries to address social problems, it can sometimes have unintended consequences. For example, it may place regulatory burdens on innocent parties, or reduce competition.
Expect to see plenty of these objections as the Office of Liquor, Gaming & Racing moves to the next stage of its review of the 10pm curfew on take-away liquor sales across NSW.
10pm curfew for bottle shop sales in NSW
The 10pm closing time for bottle-shops and other take-away retail outlets was introduced in 2014. It was one of a number of measures introduced by the NSW Liberal government in response to “one-punch assaults” and alcohol-related violence.
Of all the measures introduced, the 10pm closing time is perhaps the most vulnerable to being rolled back, although achieving this will require legislative change.
A mere 7 submissions were received during the consultation process on the impact of the restrictions in regional NSW. However, in 2016 when the review considers the impact of the 10pm sales curfew in Sydney metropolitan and surrounding areas, expect to see many more.
A summary of the NSW government’s “one-punch” reforms will appear in a subsequent post.
Liquor sales in convenience stores and supermarkets
Other retail restrictions on the retailing of alcohol are also under pressure.
The Australian Government’s Competition Policy Review (the Harper review) was released in March 2015. Panel members recognised that alcohol is different from cornflakes, washing powder and orange juice (pp 145-6), and that policymakers should not be prevented from pursuing harm minimisation objectives. However, they also cautioned that liquor laws should not benefit particular competitors or classes of competitor.
In NSW, certain kinds of business are prevented from holding a packaged liquor licence. These include general stores (mixed businesses with a floor area of 240 sq m or less), take-away food shops and service stations.
Exceptions apply to general stores in localities where there is no other take-away liquor service reasonably available to the public.
The Australasian Association of Convenience Stores argues (Harper review, p 147) that these restrictions make it harder for its members to compete with Coles and Woolworths – which locate the alcohol retail chains they own adjacent to their supermarket premises.
As Wardle and Chang show, supermarkets do treat alcohol like cornflakes, giving shoppers hefty discounts for alcohol purchases from co-located alcohol stores.
Buy a banana for $1, as these researchers did, and your sales receipt could give you an unprompted wine discount of $19.99.
But why not sell alcohol in supermarket aisles, stocking a selection of red wine with the pasta sauce, perhaps? And if convenience stores and service stations can sell cigarettes and lottery tickets, why can’t they sell booze as well?
Vodka and Vita Brits?
At the level of policy, the contest over retailing regulation is ultimately about whether we see beer as no different to breakfast cereal, and vodka as no different to Vita Brits, or whether we see alcohol as “no ordinary commodity” because of its mind-altering effects, and because it is so clearly associated with a heavy burden of preventable injury and disease.
Current retailing laws reflect the assumption, at least hitherto, that although it is a consumer product, alcohol should not be ubiquitous, and that limits on accessibility play a role in reducing the negative social consequences of harmful levels of consumption.
Liquor laws in NSW do not prohibit supermarkets from selling liquor within the store. They merely provide that the liquor sales area must be “adequately separated” from the rest of the store.
Relying on this, Aldi has recently begun selling alcohol from dedicated zones within the interior of its stores.
Coles and Woolworths are watching closely.
Melbourne’s Herald Sun reported recently that the NSW government is considering plans to allow alcohol sales to be integrated into supermarket aisles. The story is illustrated by a photo of crates of beer in a Russian supermarket.
Russia may not be the smartest model for retail alcohol regulation, given that a quarter of Russian men are dead before they reach 55, mostly due to alcohol.
In Australia, according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, in 2013 almost 5 million people – more than 25% of those aged 14 years or older – reported being a victim of an alcohol-related incident (including verbal abuse, physical abuse, or being put in fear) during the previous year.
Nearly 18% of people aged 18-24 reported being at very high risk of alcohol-related harm (defined as 11 or more standard drinks) at least once a month.
One-punch retail alcohol reforms: why did the NSW government act?
This video (0:58) shows the moment a Sydney bouncer was king-hit in an unprovoked attack by an intoxicated man refused entry to Bar 333 in George St.
Faidy Taiba suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for 19 days. His wife spoke of the “ripple effects” of his injury on her family.
These ripple effects are important.
Beyond the pain and physical injury to the assault victim, the ripple effects of alcohol-related violence may include:
- The costs of rehabilitation;
- The opportunity costs: not only the lost earnings of both victim and perpetrator, but the lost earnings of the spouse, mother or family member who goes part-time or gives up their job to care for the victim;
- The perpetrator ends up with a criminal record, despite wearing a suit in court as the defence barrister explains that they come from a really good family, and that this was an isolated incident;
- There may be longer-term consequences as well. They will vary from case to case. For example, the perpetrator (or equally the victim) may respond to the life-jolt they have experienced with substance abuse, or they may slide into depression. These, in turn, will carry other longer-term consequences. Relationships may be lost. Careers ended, life trajectories forever altered.
According to one estimate, the societal costs of alcohol-related problems in 2010 were in excess of $14 billion. Ultimately, the personal costs can never be quantified.
And this pattern is repeated over and over again.
According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, “ there were 913 police-recorded incidents of grievous bodily harm, 10,427 ambulance calls for assault and 14,106 emergency department presentations for acute alcohol illness in the [Sydney] CBD” over the period 2004-2013. This was prior to the government’s 2014 “lock-out” laws.
Between 2010 and 2013, although the proportion of those experiencing physical abuse by persons who were intoxicated remained constant, the number of persons experiencing physical abuse rose from 1.5 million to 1.7 million (NDSHS 2013, p 45).
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, at least once a year, 45% of Australians drink so much on a single occasion that they are at risk of an alcohol-related injury. More men binge drink than women (58% vs 32%) (Australia’s Health 2014, p 164).
That’s excluding the risk of chronic harm caused by excess drinking, which affects one in five Australian adults.
Let’s include this evidence in the conversation when we talk about alcohol retailing restrictions. Current laws may appear a bit less blunt than the pro-alcohol lobby would have you believe.