Supermarket chains have been shot down in a long-running court battle over Auckland’s liquor sales policies.

A new Court of Appeal decision in Auckland Council’s favour has been delivered during intense national debate about alcohol policy and alcohol abuse.

Auckland Council faced off against Foodstuffs, and Countdown owners Woolworths NZ, appealing an earlier High Court judicial review decision.

The appeal addressed issues including maximum trading hours. The council has favoured 9pm closings for off-licence liquor sales, instead of 11pm as currently allowed.

The council adopted its Local Alcohol Policy in 2015 to make changes.

Supermarket chains objected to the policy, appealing to the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority, saying elements of the policy were unreasonable.

The dispute then went to the High Court, before reaching the Court of Appeal, where the Medical Officer of Health supported the council.

Auckland Council’s policy was to apply to the entire region, but identified areas of concern in the CBD and in 23 suburban centres.

These were areas the council said had higher levels of alcohol-related harm.

The supermarkets said the council had no legal power or authority to impose a temporary freeze in new off-licences in these areas.

Foodstuffs said the council’s imposition of reduced hours, for example from 11pm to 9pm, seemed to be an attempt to rewrite the law.

But the Court of Appeal reinstated an Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority (ARLA) decision with respect to off-licence trading hours.

The legal wrangling may not end anytime soon.

ARLA can reconsider some policy elements, and then send those elements back to the Council for reconsideration.

And it’s not immediately clear if the supermarket chains will try to take their case to the Supreme Court.

The newly-published 17,400 word Court of Appeal judgment analysed more than a decade of alcohol law reforms and recommendations.

Justice Forrie Miller cited remarks from the Law Commission, which in 2010 said New Zealand legislation must go further than reducing liquor abuse.

“The problems related to alcohol in New Zealand are at a point where a more proactive approach to addressing harms is needed,” the Commission said.

In its publication Alcohol in our lives: Curbing the harm, the Commission said research found restrictions on hours of sale had greater impacts on heavier drinkers.

The 2010 report added: “This signifies that limiting trading hours for the sale of alcohol is a key policy lever for reducing alcohol-related harm.”

Foodstuffs, Countdown and Auckland Council have been approached for comment.

Big booze debate bubbles up

Alcohol Action NZ, which campaigns to reduce harmful drinking through measures including reduced advertising and availability, welcomed the Court of Appeal judgment.

“Those who profit from sales need to be excluded from policy development due to their inevitable conflict of interest,”the organisation’s medical spokesperson Professor Jennie Connor said.

“The public needs to be protected from industries that sell inherently harmful commodities, whether they are pesticides or alcohol.”

Yesterday, the chairs and chief executives of all 20 district health boards called for a change to alcohol law.

The DHBs called for the Government to urgently review the “failed” Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act.

Northland DHB chief executive Dr Nick Chamberlain said new legislation must remove easy access to alcohol and reduce the visibility of alcohol advertising and sponsorship.

Last month, the Brewers Association of New Zealand hit back at claims lockdown had sparked a huge rise in alcohol sales.

“We know from experience and Statistics NZ data that there is a short sharp burst at the beginning of lockdown but then sales drop off because people have stocked up,” the association’s executive director Dylan Firth said.

He said breweries worked hard to pull back from a difficult 2020 but the Delta variant lockdown caused brewers to face the same challenges again.

“So, we urge New Zealanders who enjoy a beer to do so and do so responsibly while in lockdown.”

Alcohol Healthwatch told the Herald’s Crime In The City series that opposition to restricted hours for booze sales was contributing to alcohol-related harmin Auckland.

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