In politics, one thing often leads to another and never more so than in the Greens’ pursuit of the O’Farrell Government over the issue of liquor promotion guidelines.
In January, an alert constituent sent us a Coles supermarket docket offering a two-for-one wine deal at any of their Liquorland bottle shop outlets. She was particularly concerned that low income tenants in a local public housing estate would be lured into excessive alcohol purchases and consequently dangerous consumption by this kind of shopper docket offer.
As we soon discovered, high quality independent research bears out her fears. Professor Sandra Jones at University of Wollongong, for example, found that discounting and two-for-one offers drive greater purchase and consumption among young people. Other researchers have come to equally disturbing conclusions.
Inspired by Professor Jones’ work we had a good look at what the NSW Liquor Act and the associated guidelines said about this kind of price cutting and marketing. The answer was depressing: not much at all.
The guidelines were almost exclusively focused on venues, and even then only the most obvious and excessive promotions were opposed. Mostly, Liquorland, Dan Murphy’s, BWS and the others could get away with whatever they liked.
We wrote to the NSW Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR) raising the issue with the Director-General. His first response in late March was the standard brush-off, but a subsequent letter a month or so later, suggested that OLGR had “identified potential deficiencies with this promotion” and that they were examining “the application of limits on quantities of alcohol able to be redeemed by customers”.
Within days of going public with this story of regulatory failure and confusion, it became clear that the guidelines were under revision. Not that we would have been able to tell except for one item hidden in an OLGR industry newsletter suggesting that new guidelines had been drafted and had been provided exclusively to the usual industry players for consultation.
While groups like Australian Hotels Association, Clubs NSW, and the Liquor Stores Association were to be given privileged access to the draft, everyone else was to be kept in the dark. There was no space for the opinions of the community, the Greens, NAAPA and others concerned about the impacts of weak and inadequate guidelines.
Our concern was that the behind-closed-doors so-called consultation would end up with the industry weakening the guidelines at the expense of the community.
After some considerable effort we were able to muster the numbers in the NSW Upper House to order the O’Farrell Government to table the various drafts and the correspondence between the Minister, OLGR and the stakeholders.
Democracy at work forced open the closed-shop deals and uncovered an appalling paper trail of OLGR bending to almost every wish of the industry.
Successive drafts were substantially weakened to suit the commercial interests of the bottle shop owners and, in particular, Coles and Woolworths.
Turns out our concerns were justified!
OLGR initially proposed a ban on promotions involving ‘discounts of greater than 50 percent off the normal retail price’.
Subsequent lobbying by Woolworths, Coles and their peak body, the Liquor Store Association (LSA), successfully caused the embargo to be dumped and replaced with a much less restrictive requirement that harm minimisation measures be applied to this kind of promotion.
The LSA and Woolworths argued that the purchase of larger quantities of alcohol as a result of a price discount does not lead to greater consumption. Relying on an analogy to breakfast cereal and toilet paper, the industry effectively denied that alcohol has addictive and habit-forming properties and delivers a pleasure reward that encourages abuse.
They were also denying the results of a growing body of independent research.
Lobbying by the liquor stores also achieved a general escape clause to be inserted at a number of key locations in the document. Provisions of the draft guidelines now “[recognise] that there may be variability in how this principle applied depending on [the outlet’s] business model”. In effect a retailer would be able to argue that the principle was not relevant to their particular promotion.
Coles and the Liquor Store Association were the biggest winners. They achieved the deletion of the caution against using high energy drinks with alcohol, the ban on deep discounting and the caution against promotions and signage that are highly visible to minors.
The supermarket chain and their industry lobby group are well aware that young people are a big part of their market and high energy alco-pops, buy-one-get-one-free deals and bright signage capture their target consumers.
Coles and the distilled liquor industry caused the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing to dump any mention of at-risk groups, opening the floodgates to promotions targeted at Indigenous Australians and young women.
Between them the alcohol industry has protected and enhanced its ability to push their products at younger people, groups at risk and underage drinkers using promotions that rely on offensive and manipulative messaging.
The opportunity to respond to the evidence of the impacts of alcohol promotions on young people had been subverted by the industry.
The papers also contained claims by Coles that they were not aware of any conclusive evidence linking price and promotions to alcohol-related harm but these went unchallenged.
The O’Farrell Government’s behind-closed-doors process was biased by the exclusive access given to the industry. Lobbying by Coles, Woolworths and the Liquor Stores Association has produced outcomes that maximise their opportunities to sell more of their goods while ignoring the evidence of the relationship between alcohol discounting and promotions and dangerous consumption.
With the Premier’s former chief-of-staff about to take up a senior appointment with Woolworths it is unlikely that there will be much progress towards guidelines that limit the social harm that alcohol promotions and discounting can create.
The final version of the Guidelines is a testament to the political power of the retailers and in particular Coles and Woolworths. Reducing alcohol-related harms plays second fiddle to the supermarket chains in Premier Barry O’Farrell’s NSW.
Photograph by Dean Hall