COOK ISLANDS BOOZE COMMITTEE FACES CRASH FACTS

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The original draft report is secret. Members are overseas. Statistics are far and few between. But the recently revived Alcohol and Tobacco Select Committee faces some surprising facts about the Sale of Liquor Act. Jason Brown did some inquiring for the Cook Islands News WeekEnd.

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (May 5, 2000 – Cook Islands News WeekEnd)---Yellow highlighter marks out the objectives in a newsroom copy of the Sale of Liquor Act 1990. It reads:

"The object of this Act is to establish a reasonable system of control over the sale and supply of liquor to the public with the aim of contributing to the reduction of liquor abuse, so far as that can be achieved by legislative means."

The yellow marker is fading. There's a handwritten note from some reporter who has since gone through a decade of change. It asks, "Will this bill achieve the stated objective?"

That's a question many asked themselves since the bill was passed. It's a question, among many others, that the recently revived Alcohol and Tobacco committee will have to ask themselves too. A quick look at the liquor act again, and then at police statistics, would suggest not.

Overall accidents have doubled in ten years, from around 100 to 200.

Senior Sergeant John Strickland has been off the frontlines of traffic for a while. Recently reappointed to traffic, he agrees their statistics don't look too healthy.

"The 1999 figures were really high," he says, "But we have to bear in mind that was when a lot of tourists came in."

Strickland shares the community's enthusiasm for the extra tourists, and the extra spending they brought with them. "Accidents are bound to happen," he said.

However, as we go through his figures it becomes obvious that most tourists are not making a big impact. Less than one in ten accidents involve tourists.

"Ninety percent of accidents are locals," he confirms, saying police achieved a high profile during the Christmas and New Year's breaks. But once police go back to normal hours -- or as normal as police can get -- accident rates climb again.

Back at the Cook Islands News office offers another look at Strickland's figures, along with population and visitor figures from Statistics CI.

Locals or tourists, drunk or not, accident rates are worse than Strickland thinks.

An analysis of rising accident figures and shrinking population shows that the chances of have an accident have nearly doubled.

In 1990 there was one accident for every 138 people but in 1999 that figure was one accident for every seventy-five people.

In fact the chances are doubly worrying because nearly all the accidents happen on Rarotonga. As the capital island, Rarotonga has more than half the population.

Sounds like a clear-cut case for the anti-booze brigade. Over the last year, evangelist churches particularly have come out strongly on the growing evils of drink.

As far as traffic -- and our alcohol select committee in Parliament -- is concerned however, statistics do not entirely support the idea that road drunks are becoming ever more common.

Yes, an appalling one out of four accidents was related to alcohol last year. But that is the same fraction as the year when the Sales of Liquor Act was passed in 1990. Since then, the number of drunks in crashes has sometimes approached as many as half but not often.

Of course, since there are more accidents there are more drunk drivers but the proportion is not increasing.

Some other trends do emerge. A year before the economic crisis in 1996, the number of accidents climbed rapidly, and stayed up over the next five years. Strangely, chances of being killed went down over the same time.

In the early ‘90s, when police were really putting the bite into the strict new licensing laws, accident rates were lower but your chances of being killed in a drink drive crash were far higher.

So let's go back to the Sale of Liquor Act.

The idea was simple. Cut back licensing hours and a nation of booze abusers happily take themselves home and go to sleep much earlier. Far fewer crashes, fights at home and work hours wasted on hangovers.

There are even fewer figures on domestic abuse and lost productivity due to alcohol, but accident figures at least suggest that the booze problem is not as bad as first thought.

Instead the select committee may have to look elsewhere -- like the growing number of vehicles on the road. And, if they agree that booze is not the problem, what are the effects of strict licensing laws on the economy?

Strickland praises bar and restaurant owners for cooperating with existing licensing laws.

By midnight, says Strickland, "I think they want to go home and have a rest with their families."

Maybe. But a question the committee faces is whether licensing hours cut back spending and hold down the economy.

We lack a huge tourism industry to fund an in-depth study on spending patterns among tourists. But an equation that has been done before is based on the $50 note.

It goes like this. If licensing hours were extended last year, and each of 55,559 tourists spent an average $50, then that would have meant an extra $2,779,950 for the country last year.

Of course, not every tourist is going to stay up past midnight and spend $50. But a lot would if they were allowed to, and many of them will spend more than $50 over a few nights out.

Well-known family man Jack Cooper of Trader Jacks says they have no problem with licensing laws but asks whether there can be more flexibility.

"If there's a late flight we should be able to stay open so that people can meet that flight or leave on that flight."

Cooper says it's the economics of the situation that should influence licensing hours.

"If it's two o'clock in the morning, I'm not going to be open at two in the morning if there's no one around."

When cabinet wanted to change the licensing laws in 1990 former solicitor general John Appleby took the old laws from New Zealand and changed them for here. Now, says Cooper, New Zealand has new, more "relaxed" licensing laws that allow late hours and even 24 hour licenses for some bars.

"The emphasis to the committee should be that it is far better people are drinking in a controlled environment than down on a beach."

One other thing that Cooper would like to see a change in is whether or not the committee takes notice of community input.

One former bar owner put "hours" into his submissions, to no effect, he says. In fact, almost no one knows how much the old committee absorbed because its draft report was never released, or even tabled in Parliament.

Then headed by former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry, the committee is now headed by the current Prime Minister Dr. Terepai Maoate. Maybe one of his first acts could be to release the old draft report so we know what happened to all the old submissions.

Of course, liquor licensing laws are only one aspect the committee may look at. But until the new committee sits and decides what it wants to do, the yellow markings on old liquor laws will keep on fading.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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