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Sale of Liquor Act, 1989
Local Perspectives

Legislative control over the sale and supply of alcohol has important consequences for the health of individuals and the community as a whole. In 1995 the Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit undertook a qualitative telephone interview study, funded by the Alcohol Advisory Council, which looked at the process and problems of liquor licensing in 15 New Zealand towns under the Sale of Liquor Act, 1989, five years after its introduction.

The study documented and analysed the activities and impressions of officers with statutory functions under the Act, in relation to local changes in the sale of alcohol and how they undertook their role. Sixty-nine structured telephone interviews were conducted with licensing inspectors and other officers of District Licensing Agencies, licensing sergeants, Medical Officers of Health, health promotion or protection officers and some community health workers, all with a role in the licensing processThey were asked about what they felt was working well or not so well in the licensing system, and whether they believed legislation could contribute to the aim of 'contributing towards the reduction of alcohol abuse'. Their perceptions of how well local statutory officers were working together were also covered.

Researchers: Linda Hill, Liz Stewart
Research report: The Sale of Liquor Act 1989L: Local Perspectives
Peer Review: Social Policy Jourrnal, Dec. 1996

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Summary of findings

The changing environment

Respondents were asked about changes witnessed in their area over the five years of the Act. All areas reported increases in numbers of licensed premises and later hours of trading. Most increase had occurred in small cafe-bar style premises and licensed restaurants. Some traditional taverns and hotels had closed, or changed the size and style of their bars to compete in the cafe-bar market. Variation between locations reflected socio-economic differences and the hospitality industry features of the area, as well as population size.

The Sale of Liquor Act

Respondents believed that licensing legislation could contribute to the reduction of alcohol related harm. They identified a number of ways in which the Act as currently written could be improved to make it easier to understand and enforce. Amendments considered necessary included simplification of the provisions on the legal drinking age; definition of 'intoxication; and clarification of what constituted 'the provision of food'.

Respondents reported many situations of underage drinking. Concern was expressed about very young drinkers, and about the unenforceability of present provisions around the minimum legal drinking age on licensed premises.

Hours of trading were reported as the main discretionary factor in the granting of individual licences and showed some variation between locations. Some concerns were expressed with very late or 24 hour trading from both an enforcement and a health viewpoint.

A key concern was that licences should be 'easier to lose'. This was considered not to be the case at present, and respondents felt this weakened their ability to enforce all provisions of the Act.

Despite these concerns, there were many expressions of satisfaction with the new drinking environments made possible by the Act, as well as with local administration of the licensing system.

Local responsibilities

Respondents in each location outlined their understanding of the role of each of the statutory agencies and described how they went about their own work.

In many locations the appointment of a specific officer for this work in each of the statutory agencies helped ensure greater priority for licensing issues. District Licensing Agency officers reported a variety of arrangements between officers and the Agency as a committee of Council, particularly with regard to discretionary powers over special licences, temporary authorities and the renewal of unproblematic licences.

It was suggested that training could be provided for the job of licensing inspector, given the level of expertise needed in legislation, case law, hospitality and alcohol issues.

Benefits of working together

Interviews explored the way District Licensing Agency officers, police and public health officers were working together in administering the Act and in working towards the reduction of alcohol related harm.

Closer relationships, greater proactivity and expressions of job satisfaction were noticeable in those locations where statutory officers were meeting together at least monthly in licensing liaison groups. These focused on coordination, enforcement and joint initiatives.

Some District Licensing Agencies organised less frequent liquor liaison meetings of a wider range of parties with an interest in licensing and alcohol issues. The primary focus of these was communication and debate.

Inspection and enforcement

Most inspection of licensed premises was reported as occurring at times of licence application and renewal. In most locations other inspection, by any of the three agencies, was primarily in response to problems reported by police or by the public. There were comments that excess competition and falling profitability lead to poorly run premises and infringements of the Act.

Licensed restaurants or cafe-bars, off-licences and clubs were seldom visited by statutory officers, other than for renewal of the licence. It was reported that some sports clubs had become sizeable outlets for alcohol on weekends, but were receiving little attention.

Late night inspections were considered essential, but were more frequently reported in locations with a specific inspector for licensing or a proactive health promotion officer. Locations in which routine inspection of all premises was occurring tended to be medium sized licensing areas with a relative low turnover of ownership and a high level of cooperation between statutory officers.

Public health officers pointed out that they did not share equal powers under the Act to inspect or enforce provisions of the Act which were the focus of their work.

Officers expressed frustration that 'problem premises' were difficult to close, because of a perceived reluctance by the Liquor Licensing Authority to grant suspensions or cancellations, and because licensees retained the right to continue trading during appeal. Some police reported similar frustration that prosecuted offenders were treated leniently in some District Courts.

In this situation, statutory officers reported cutting back hours of trading had become a key means of controlling problems arising from such premises.

It was reported that licensees responded favourably to a 'level playing field' of closing hours and host responsibility requirements. Negotiating solutions to problems with licensees was reported as a successful strategy in locations where statutory officers were working closely together in licensing liaison groups.

Proactive approaches

The Act's requirement for the provision of food and non-alcoholic drinks underpinned the work of public health officers in promoting host responsibility on licensed premises.

Respondents believed the object of 'contributing to the reduction of alcohol abuse' could be strengthened by writing host responsibility into the Act.

In a few locations Public Health Service host responsibility questionnaires were supplemented by requesting licensees to prepare a host responsibility policy specific to the premises. In small towns at the periphery of the Medical Officer of Health's jurisdiction there was little or no promotion of host responsibility by health promotion officers and other agencies were not emphasising it.

One licensing inspector suggested that the host responsibility policy could be formalised as an agreement between the licensee and Medical Officer of Health, adherence to which would become a condition of the licence.

Some District Licensing Agencies were requiring evidence of training as an indication of 'suitability' - with licence applications. It was reported that suitable training was now provided by a number of polytechnics, and in some locations, Agency staff or health promotion officers were offering their own training on the Sale of Liquor Act or on host responsibility.

Proactive initiatives undertaken in some locations covered a variety of licensing related issues and strategies. In many areas police and public health officers reported working together on Last Drink Surveys. These were considered useful for targeting inspection and host responsibility training to particular premises, as well as contributing to evidence for non-renewal of licences. Joint initiatives and proactive strategies were most often reported in locations where officers met regularly in licensing liaison committees.

Local control over alcohol availability

There was an expectation among respondents that more routine decision making on licensing would eventually be devolved to the local level. Respondents from locations which reported a high level of liaison between statutory officer considered themselves ready for greater responsibility.

However, most saw the need to retain a national Liquor Licensing Authority as an appeal body. There were concerns about autonomy and accountability, particularly in relation to small town licensing areas. Some respondents believed that some Agencies were overreaching their autonomous powers with regard to special licences and temporary authorities.

In the event of any reworking of local and national responsibilities, suggestions were made for a more proactive role for the Liquor Licensing Authority in auditing, training and support for all licensing areas.

Despite provisions for public notification of and objections to licence applications, respondents reported that these were inadequate and direct input from the community was limited under the Act as it stands. Some suggestions for amendment were made.

In some locations it was reported that community frustrations had made licensing a local political issue, leading to the formulation of Council policy on licensing hours.

Since planning consent is a prerequisite for a liquor licence, some Councils were putting emphasis on the control of alcohol availability in their District Plans. In other areas, however, it was indicated that neither planners nor Councils yet considered the sale of alcohol to be an appropriate issue for town planning.

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