Hard News by Russell Brown


In the ongoing debate over the proper drinking age, I have repeatedly heard and read explanations why what seems to me a reasonable solution - fixing an age of 20 for purchase of liquor for consumption off the premises, and 18 for purchase and consumption on licensed premises - cannot be a starter. And they have never made sense to me.

The report from the law and order select committee on the private members' bill seeking to return the age to 20 does it again. On page four, it ventures that such a proposal "would re-introduce some of the complexity that the 1999 legislation was designed to eradicate. Some people suggested that the different age requirements would initially generate much confusion. They consider that a split age will make enforcement more complex and difficult. They note that enforcement is crucial to the success of achieving the bill’s aim of reducing harm, and that a single consistent purchase age simplifies enforcement, making it more effective."

And yet, a new law restoring the age to 20 would include a welter of exceptions - all of them relating to consumption on the premises - that is surely, to any sensible observer, more complex than a clear, simple rule: off-sales, 20; on-sales, 18.

The report also notes that a split age "may be perceived as inconsistent with the aim of reducing harm to youth from alcohol consumption." But doesn't the same apply to those various exceptions allowing under-age consumption?

The report further observes that the Ministry of Health doesn't support the split age, and "is not aware of any evidence that a split purchase age reduces alcohol-related harm."

Well, why not? Isn't this a fairly obvious avenue for research? Shouldn't we know where and how dangerous drinking is taking place?

The ministry also, the report says, "notes that, although on-licensed premises can provide a safer environment for young people to drink, this is reliant on adherence to host responsibility guidelines, which it cautions are not always followed."

Nonetheless, I think we can assume that the 18 year-old buying a beer at a bar whose licence is contingent on the demonstration of host responsibility is a hell of a lot safer than the 18 year-old buying cut-price hooch and guzzling it in a park (and, it should be noted, potentially handing the bottle to the nearby 16 year-old). On the other hand, the assumption that parents and guardians will be more responsible than licensed hosts would seem to be undercut by the fact - as we are often told - that most teenagers drinking dangerously obtain their liquor from parents.

My particular interest here is that most live music is presented in licensed premises. If the age is raised again to 20, a teenage band will be able to play in a pub, but their friends won't be able to hear them - unless accompanied by a guardian (it might be more correct to say "former guardian", given that these people would be considered adults under virtually every statute bar the liquor laws). Given the joy that live music offered me as a teenager (it was easier to sneak into pubs back then) I think that's sad.

Voting on the liquor bill will come down to the wire. It seems a shame that it will be either-or, while a prudent middle way is ignored.

Meanwhile, a new report in Britain identifies the phenomenon of "paedophobia" - the British are increasingly fearful of their own young people.

There's quite a lively discussion on No Right Turn following a post noting that in a Radio Live interview Don Brash "admitted that he had used National's Parliamentary Services budget to pay the salary of his chief election strategist, Bryan Sinclair." It should be observed that Sinclair was not officially an election strategist, but Dr Brash's "personal adviser". But the idea that anyone would hire a political fixer like Sinclair to conduct Parliamentary business is a bit farcical.

The way that Brash was at pains to emphasise that no money was paid to Sinclair to provide advice when his personal life hit the news recently suggests that Sinclair's role (as illuminated in some of the leaked Brash emails) remains controversial within National itself.

National has not been found in breach by the Auditor-General, because he looked only at advertising expenditure, but he did say that "in a broad sense, the inquiry does pose questions about the appropriateness of other expenditure incurred by the Service."

Well, yes: when the Green Party publishing a monthly newsletter is deemed unlawful, but the spending of taxpayers' money on the dubious services of Sinclair is not, things seem a little skew-whiff. There's no question of this going further, but you might think it should temper a little of the moral outrage from the right, which has lately reached the point of hysteria.

The polls: while a yawning gap between the major parties opens up in the latest Colmar Brunton poll, a Roy Morgan poll taken before the final A-G's report found National and Labour neck and neck.

One more comment on the Herceptin hype issue, from my doctor mate Rob:

Bandolier do great evidence summaries. The bottom line is that it's an impressive drug, but you still need to treat ~15 women with early breast cancer to prevent 1 recurrence, and at NZD$70,000 per course thats about a million dollars per recurrence prevented, and for that money you could get much better health outcomes if spent elsewhere. It's a little more cost effective for metastatic disease but here it is mainly prolonging life rather than curing. The final problem is that all the data is short-term (1-3 years) and while it's likely that 5 or 10 year data will be even better it's not assured (strange things happen in medicine) so it's difficult to make accurate estimations about how effective this drug is.

And, finally, thanks for everyone in Nelson for a brief, pleasant trip south in the course of which I: stayed in the very pleasant Cathedral Garden apartment (turned down by Joe Bennett because he need somewhere he could smoke in bed!); saw a very enjoyable show by Don McGlashan and band (excellent falsetto in 'Bathe in the River'); shook a little booty to Grant Smithies (the track listing by overhead projector was a nice idea) and spent 90 minutes on stage over brunch discussing blogging, the media and Public Address with Matt Lawrey. That's a good little festival they've got going there, and the people who make it happen are really quite lovely.