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Liquor in supermarkets? Be careful what you wish for

Opinion

Loosening restrictions on liquor licensing may throw out the checks and balances we need to protect health and safety, argues former South Australian senior liquor licensing official Warren Lewis.

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With over 40 years’ experience in liquor and gambling, including many years as Deputy Commissioner, I read with interest the Government’s recently released Liquor Licensing Discussion Paper, which closes for submissions today.

It may well be a “discussion paper” by name, but in my view it’s really a proposal for change.

The liquor industry is a necessarily highly regulated industry which has served the interests of this state for almost 180 years, but if the most recent paper is to be taken at face value then I despair for the future of what could become a deregulated industry.

Since the ’60s there have been three major reviews of liquor licensing in South Australia, in addition to many lesser reviews in between. Those reviews have recognised the need to minimise the harm associated with excessive alcohol consumption through codes of practice and other public order initiatives, while also delivering enhancements to liquor and associated industries, including outdoor dining, wine production and wine tourism.

Laws cannot remain static, otherwise they become a burden on the industries they regulate and the communities they protect. A robust statutory review program ensures that regulation keeps abreast of community and industry needs and aspirations.

However, in moving forward, we also need to reflect back on why laws have been fashioned in a particular way – to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

What on the face of it may appear anti-competitive may simply be a well-defined and responsible set of checks and balances.

I am on record as saying a previous proposal to allow supermarkets to sell bottled wine would merely create a back door through the regulatory process, in favour of new and specialised entrants, to the detriment of the state’s 800 odd existing packaged liquor outlets.

I note this issue is once again up for consideration as part of the new discussion paper, the scope now seemingly broadened to include all types of alcohol, not just wine.

Also on the agenda is the question of whether the ‘needs’ test should remain in assessing an application for a liquor licence for a packaged liquor outlet. The current ‘needs’ test embraces a regulatory process which enables unsatisfied public demand in a defined locality to be met, but provides a check against proliferation of packaged liquor outlets.

Relaxing the law to allow supermarkets to sell liquor, without maintaining the ‘needs’ test could mirror the results of a similar ‘initiative’ in Victoria where the number of bottle shops have doubled over the past 20 years.

Research by Victorian health authorities has shown that eight or more packaged liquor outlets within one kilometre has led to a doubling of binge drinking in that community. Further, a 21% increase in the number of licensed premises in Victoria over a nine-year period contributed to a 28% increase in medical treatment for alcohol-related incidents and a doubling of ambulance attendances.

How does this accord with the harm minimisation objectives under the liquor licensing laws? And, how does increasing availability of cheap packaged liquor contribute to the state’s reputation for producing premium bottled wine?

There is no doubt that discretion is required to maintain a balance between community and industry interests to ensure the liquor industry continues to contribute to, and not detract from, community life. That is the duty of experienced regulators given the necessary legislative tools with which to work.

What on the face of it may appear anti-competitive may simply be a well-defined and responsible set of checks and balances.

Deregulation? Let’s be careful what we wish for.

Warren Lewis is a former Deputy Liquor and Gambling Commissioner for South Australia.

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