Monday, 3 December 2018

Public health vs. competition in Australian alcohol regulation

In New Zealand, the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act has a harm minimisation objective. Specifically, Section 4(1) of the Act specifies that:
The object of this Act is that - 
(a) the sale, supply, and consumption of alcohol should be undertaken safely and responsibly; and
(b) the harm caused by the excessive or inappropriate consumption of alcohol should be minimised.
Section 4(1)(b) clearly puts a public health objective within the legislation. In contrast, the corresponding Australian legislation has no such public health objective. So, I was interested to read this 2017 article (open access) by Janani Muhunthan (University of Sydney) and co-authors, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. In the article Muhunthan et al. look at cases in the Australian courts between 2010 and 2015, of appeals of liquor licensing or planning decisions related to alcohol outlets. In total, they looked at 44 such cases, and found that:
Most decisions (n=34, 77%) resulted in an outcome favourable to the industry actor in the case (n=24 development applications and n=10 liquor licensing decisions). The majority of decisions involving liquor outlets were brought by liquor establishments owned by Australia’s two major grocery chains (n=11/19) and had a success rate of greater than 70% (n=8/11) in disputes. Governments and their agencies were successful in having appeals dismissed in less than a quarter (n=10) of the cases studied.
In the discussion, they note that:
Competition principles underpinned by legislation were highly influential in decisions and it is the presence of such legislation that enabled pro-competition decisions to be the default outcome. A consequence of the lack of explicit legislative support for preventive health arguments is that public health impact is relegated in practice below other considerations including market freedoms, amenity and the compatibility of industry’s proposal with existing planning controls.
The goal of increasing competition in Australia essentially overrides the public health considerations. One of the key problems they identified is that public health evidence was general, rather than specifically related to a given alcohol outlet, whereas industry data supporting an appeal was much more specific. They conclude that:
[t]he ability of government and community groups to better execute a public health case in the area of alcohol regulation can thus be addressed from the top down through the inclusion of explicit public health objectives in existing planning and liquor licensing controls.
As noted at the start of this post, New Zealand legislation already includes the public health objective. However, in spite of the explicit public health objective of the legislation, the problem appears to me to be essentially the same - it is difficult for the public health case to be made when the data do not speak specifically to a given application for a liquor licence. Now that the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act has been in operation for a few years, it would be really interesting to do some comparative work on a similar basis to the Muhunthan et al. article, but based on New Zealand cases.

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