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Public opinion and local government alcohol policy: a study of seven New Zealand communities.

Public opinion is central to democratic theory, which suggests that politicians respond to public will in order to gain and/or maintain political power (Burstein, 1998). Kingdon (1984) postulates that the "national mood" influences whether or not issues reach the government agenda, and places boundaries around the viability of policy solutions.

A number of studies have examined the relationship between public opinion and government activity, finding the relationship to vary by: policy area (Hobolt & Klemmemsen, 2005; Monroe, 1998; Page & Shapiro, 1983; Monroe, 1979; Weber & Shaffer, 1972; Miller & Stokes, 1963), the level and consistency of public support for a policy (Monroe, 1998; Page & Shapiro, 1983; Monroe, 1979), the saliency of the issue (Petry & Mendelsohn, 2004; Monroe, 1998; Page & Shapiro, 1983; Monroe, 1979), the ease of implementing the policy (Monroe, 1998; Monroe, 1979), and voting system (Hobolt & Klemmemsen, 2005). Much of the research has focused on the actions of federal (central) and state governments. One of the few conducted at the local government level found a significant positive association between the political ideology of residents and local government spending in social policy areas (Kelleher, 2005).

Local government in New Zealand is the lower level of the country's two-tiered government system. Its functions and powers are largely determined by central government and include implementing various aspects of central government legislation, including liquor and environmental laws. This means local governments are in a position to manage alcohol in their communities, a role that has become increasingly important over recent years as successive New Zealand governments, of both left and right-of-center persuasion, have removed many of the controls on alcohol availability (Casswell & Maxwell, 2005; Hill, 2005).

In New Zealand, the trading hours of alcohol outlets, and the general areas in which they can be located are both determined by local government. They can also reduce the availability of alcohol by: prohibiting alcohol advertising on council property (e.g., bus shelters, billboards, community amenities), creating buffer zones (i.e., areas around residential areas and/or significant community buildings in which alcohol outlets are prohibited), and introducing one-way door policies (i.e., restrictions on entry to bars after specified hours). Other strategies to reduce alcohol-related harm include safety initiatives (e.g., environmental design to improve safety, provision of late night transport, use of closed-circuit television cameras, and employment of safety patrol officers), provision of treatment services for high-risk drinkers, and education campaigns (Hill, 2005).

It is not known whether these strategies have public support nor the extent to which local governments in New Zealand have adopted them. The aim of this study was to assess the extent of agreement between local government activity and public opinion on alcohol policy. If it is high, then, like policy theory suggests, local governments would appear to be responding to public opinion.


Study design

Seven communities were purposively selected for the study (see below). Residents from these communities were then randomly selected from the New Zealand electoral roll and invited to complete a postal survey. New Zealand citizens and permanent residents aged 18 years and over are required by law to register on the electoral roll. To be eligible for the study, those invited to participate had to be living in the area in which they were registered to vote at the time of the survey.

Study sites

The areas studied were Alexandra (pilot site), Dunedin City, the Selwyn District, Wellington City, Palmerston North City, Hamilton City and North Shore City (Figure 1). The main study areas (i.e., those communities other than Alexandra) each have a university campus. They were selected so the study would complement a project examining modifiable determinants of hazardous drinking among university students attending these campuses (Kypri et al., 2009). It was recognized that many factors that may affect university student drinking behaviors lie outside campus boundaries and jurisdiction, and are nominally under the control of local government (e.g., opening hours of licensed premises). Accordingly, the project sought to characterize the environment surrounding each campus, including the local government's alcohol policies.


The study methods and survey instalment were piloted in Alexandra (Figure 1), a township in the Central Otago District that, unlike the other communities, does not have a university. As the questionnaire was found to be acceptable in the pilot study (Maclennan, 2010), and the selection of residents (randomly selected from the electoral roll) and administration of the survey (self-administered pen-and-paper questionnaire) was the same as in the main study, Alexandra was included as the seventh community.

Table 1 presents demographic and geographic information about each location. While the seven areas are not representative of all New Zealand local government areas, they reflect a broad range of socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, with rural communities (Selwyn District, Alexandra), provincial centers (Hamilton, Palmerston North, Dunedin) and major metropolitan areas (Wellington, North Shore).

Data collection

Residents' support for local government policies to control alcohol problems was measured using a self-completed pen-and-paper questionnaire. The pilot study tested two questionnaire delivery methods: postal versus drop-and-collect (Maclennan, Kypri, & Langley, 2011). This informed the decision to use a postal survey in the main study. The mailing procedure has been described in detail elsewhere (Maclennan, 2010). The potential for bias due to the use of different survey delivery methods in Alexandra was considered low. An analysis of the effect of delivery method on policy support revealed no significant difference in public opinion as a function of survey mode (Maclennan et al., 2011).

A sample of 100 residents was selected and invited to participate in Alexandra. This was chosen to detect a large difference in response by survey delivery method, the minimum effect size considered necessary to justify the costs of using the drop-and-collect method in the main study communities. Based on available resources, 400 were invited to participate in each of these communities. Assuming a 50% response, this would limit sampling error to less than [+ or -] 7%.

Information on measures to control alcohol problems in the seven local government areas was obtained via analyses of documented policies and interviews with local government staff. An initial search for policy information was made in August 2008 by visiting local government Websites. In addition, a letter was written to the chief executive officer of each local government formally requesting copies of, and information on, alcohol-related policies and strategies.

Responses to these letters helped identify staff to contact in order to clarify aspects of alcohol-related policies and, in some cases, to seek further information. For local governments from which no response was received, contacts were identified via local government Websites. Telephone calls were then made to local government staff in each of the seven communities to discuss the alcohol-related policies employed in their community.

Public opinion measures

Support for local government alcohol policies was measured with five questionnaire items. These asked residents, in relation to their community, the extent to which they agreed (i.e., agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, or disagreed) with the following propositions: (1) pubs, bars and nightclubs should be allowed to operate for 24 hours per day, (2) local government should use liquor bylaws to control drinking in public, (3) local government should restrict the number of alcohol outlets, (4) local government should not allow alcohol advertising on its properties, and (5) local government should provide education programs to encourage responsible drinking. Survey items were then used to create a composite support score for policy restrictions (range: 5 to 30). The development of this policy score is described elsewhere (Maclennan, 2010). Cronbach's alpha for items comprising the score was 0.72.

Data analysis

The percentage of support for the five policies was compared with the status of the policies (i.e., whether present vs. absent) in each of the seven communities. In the political science literature, this is known as a consistency study, where public opinion is compared to the policy outputs (or lack thereof) of a government (e.g., Petry & Mendelsohn, 2004; Monroe, 1998; Monroe, 1979). If the majority of residents (i.e., more than 50%) agreed that a policy should be in place (e.g., restrictions on trading hours) and the local government had adopted such a policy, then policy and opinion were considered to be in agreement (i.e., consistent). Obversely, if the majority were opposed to the policy, in the absence of such a policy, public opinion and the local government position were considered to be in agreement (i.e., consistent). Where the majority supported a policy and no policy was in place, public opinion and local government policy were coded as inconsistent. Likewise, a code indicating inconsistency was recorded when the majority opposed a policy that their local government had in place.

Following the assessment of consistency, the status of policies not asked about in the survey was examined (e.g., restrictions on the trading hours of off-license premises, provision of late night transport, employment of safety patrol officers). Mean policy scores in each community were then compared with the total number of policies used to reduce alcohol-related harm.


Community survey response rates and sample characteristics

Of the 2500 residents invited to participate, 1372 returned fully or partially completed questionnaires and 163 were ineligible as they no longer lived at the address recorded on the electoral roll. The final response rate was 59% (1372/2337). Nonrespondents included 307 people (13%) who declined to participate and 658 (28%) who never returned their questionnaire. Response varied significantly by location ([chi square] = 48.65, df = 6, p < 0.001). The highest response was obtained in the Selwyn District (69%) and the lowest in Hamilton City (46%).

The median age of the sample in each community, except Alexandra, was higher than that of the eligible voting population (18 years and over) in that community (range of difference: 2-6 years). The sample in six communities contained a slightly greater proportion of females (range of difference: 1-6%), while the North Shore sample contained 2% fewer females, than in the population aged 18 years and over in these areas. Maori (range: 0-6%), Pacific Island peoples (range: 0-2%), and Asians (range: 1-9%) were slightly underrepresented among respondents relative to the eligible voting population in each area.

Alcohol policies

All seven local governments had alcohol policy information available on their Website. The letter to the chief executives elicited a response from three of the seven local governments. In two cases, the information provided led to, or was the same as, that available on their Website. The third provided additional information on alcohol-related strategies employed in their community.

After receiving a response to the chief executive's letter, or after 4 weeks of no response, phone calls were made to local government staff in each community and alcohol-related policies discussed (N = 9; two staff were contacted in both Alexandra and Wellington). As a result of this contact, copies of policy documents were received from a further two of the four local governments that did not respond to our initial request for information.

Consistency between public opinion and policy

Table 2 shows the status of policies in each of the local government areas, along with the level of public support for them. It is important to note, however, that Table 2 presents a general outline of the policies only. In some cases there were exceptions or qualifications and these are discussed in the following paragraphs.

We use the following terms to describe the level of support for a policy: strong (where more than 80% of residents agreed with a policy), good (60%-79%), moderate (40%-59%), weak (20%-39%), and poor (0%-19%).

There was strong support in four communities for restricting the trading hours of on-licensed premises (range: 71% to 89%) (Table 2). All areas except the North Shore had a general policy restricting the trading hours of on-licensed premises, however, each allowed for exemptions to these restricted hours. Although the exception rather than the norm, exemptions allowed for 24-hour trading in Dunedin, Wellington and the Selwyn District. The true level of consistency in these areas is therefore lower than indicated by the scores.

The majority of residents in each area except the Selwyn District supported the use of liquor bans to control drinking in public (range: 45% to 87%) (Table 2). All seven areas showed consistency between public opinion and policy for liquor bans.

Support for restricting alcohol outlet numbers was moderate in five communities (range: 27% to 49%). Consistent with opinion, none of the seven local governments had a policy restricting the number of alcohol outlets in their community (Table 2). It is worth noting that when those neutral on the policy were excluded from the analysis, over 50% of residents in each area except Alexandra supported restricting outlet numbers in their community. From this perspective, the level of consistency between public opinion and local government policy is lower than indicated by a simple comparison in these six communities.

The majority of residents in each area agreed that their local government should disallow alcohol advertising on its property (range: 58% to 69%) (Table 2). Policy was consistent with public opinion in the two rural areas (Alexandra: advertising signs restricted to commercial sites where the alcoholic beverage can be purchased, except when associated with event sponsorship; Selwyn District: no advertising of alcohol products on bus shelters).

There was good support for education programs and safety campaigns in six communities (range: 58% to 68%). Local government policy concurred with public support for these campaigns in all seven areas (Table 2).

Local government policy was consistent with public opinion for all 5 policies in the rural areas of Alexandra and Selwyn District. In North Shore, the largest metropolitan area, policy was consistent with public opinion for 3 out of 5 policies. The remaining three areas showed consistency for 4 out of 5 policies.

When taking into account exceptions which allowed 24-hour on-licenses to be granted, the level of consistency reduced by one in Wellington, Dunedin and the Selwyn District. When removing those who were neutral toward policies (i.e., neither agreed nor disagreed that they should be in place), consistency reduced by one in each area except Alexandra.

Policy support and the number of alcohol-related policies in the seven communities

There was variation in the number of policies in place in each of the seven local government areas (Figure 2). All areas had general restrictions on the trading hours of licensed premises in residential and nonresidential areas, except North Shore, where each license application was treated on its merits. This was also the case for off-license premises in nonresidential areas of Dunedin. However, as mentioned above, each local government allowed for exemptions to these restricted hours in one way or another.

All areas except the Selwyn District used liquor bans to control drinking in public spaces. All delivered education programs and/or safety campaigns and two (Alexandra and Selwyn District) of the seven had restrictions on alcohol advertising. None had a policy restricting the number of alcohol outlets. This is most likely because, although theoretically possible, it is infeasible in practice for local governments to adopt restrictions on alcohol outlet numbers within the current legislative framework (Dosser & Anderson, 2008; Hill, 2004). None of the seven local governments had buffer zones (i.e., areas around residential areas and/or significant community buildings in which alcohol outlets are prohibited). All used environmental design to reduce alcohol-related harm, and more than half used CCTV (Alexandra, Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton, North Shore) and/or safety officers to patrol central streets (Dunedin, Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton). The two latter strategies varied across local government areas in terms of hours of active monitoring. Only Palmerston North had a permanent one-way door policy in place.

Figure 2 compares the mean policy support score and number of policies used in each area to reduce alcohol-related harm. There was little variation in the mean policy support score (i.e., the level of support for restrictive policies) across the seven communities (range: 23 to 24). The number of policies and strategies used to reduce alcohol-related harm in each community ranged from 4 to 11. No clear pattern was apparent between mean policy support and the number of policies and strategies used (Figure 2).



Consistency between public opinion and local government policy ranged from moderate (three out of five cases) to high (five out of five cases) across the seven local government areas studied. Consistency was highest in the rural areas of Alexandra and Selwyn District and lowest in North Shore, the largest metropolitan area. The policy most commonly inconsistent with public opinion (in five of the seven communities) was restrictions on alcohol advertising. When considering policy exceptions, and removing those neutral toward policies, consistency fell in all areas except Alexandra. The total number of policies used to reduce alcohol-related problems also varied across the communities and there was no clear pattern between policy support and the number of policies used in each community.

Limitations of the study include response rates to the survey (46% to 69%), which leave a large margin for nonresponse bias; and the small Alexandra sample. Males and youth, groups that tend to be less supportive of alcohol control policies (Wilkinson, Room, & Livingston, 2009; Pinsky, Sanches, Zaleski, Laranjeira, & Caetano, 2007; Greenfield, Johnson, & Giesbrecht, 2004; Harwood, Bernat, Lenk, Vazquez, & Wagenaar, 2004) were slightly underrepresented in the study samples, therefore public support in each community may have been slightly overestimated. This is unlikely to have had a significant impact on the opinion-policy consistency observed in the study, certainly for trading hour restrictions and public area drinking bans which had high levels of support. Consistency observed between opinion and policy on advertising restrictions may be incorrect in two or three communities. If this is the case in Alexandra or the Selwyn District, then consistency would be lower in these areas. If it were any of the remaining communities, then consistency would be higher. Observed consistency may also be incorrect in one or two communities with respect to education programs. If so, then consistency would be lower in these areas. It is possible, however, that nonrespondents were more supportive of education programs than restrictive alcohol controls, meaning opinion-policy consistency observed for this strategy would remain the same.

Although the seven areas reflect a broad range of communities in terms of socioeconomic factors and demographic characteristics, they tended to be less deprived than other New Zealand communities. The findings, therefore, may not generalize well to New Zealand communities that are more deprived. The work also provides no insight into the direction of the association between public opinion and local government policy (i.e., whether opinion influences the adoption of policy or, conversely, the adoption of policy influences opinion), a limitation inherent to all consistency studies. It is important to recognize however that consistency between opinion and alcohol policy might not always be in the best interests of public health, for example, when the public do not support alcohol policies that scientific evidence shows are likely to reduce alcohol-related harm. In this situation governments should take the lead and adopt evidence-based policy. The public may respond favorably to these policies upon seeing that they reduce alcohol problems and do not impose the burden that they feared. The current study shows a clear public mandate for local governments in each of the seven communities to introduce certain policies that would help reduce alcohol-related harm. This begs the question of why discordance between opinion and policy exists.

Previous studies have found opinion-policy consistency tends to be higher when policies are highly supported, easily implemented, and when the policy issue is of high salience to the public (Petty & Mendelsohn, 2004; Monroe, 1998; Monroe, 1979; Weber & Shaffer, 1972). This study shows similar results. Restrictions on on-license trading hours and drinking in public areas had strong support in most communities and local government policy was consistent with this support. By comparison, support for advertising restrictions was more moderate and only the two rural areas employed such restrictions. However, education programs also had moderate support in each community yet all seven local governments used education and/or safety campaigns to reduce alcohol-related harm. This finding could be due to the public salience of the policy option and/or the ease of implementing such campaigns compared to adopting an advertising ban policy, particularly in terms of net cost to local governments and industry resistance.

Restricting the number of alcohol outlets may also have been a low-salience policy option in each community given the high proportion of residents with a neutral position on the policy. Nonetheless, in six of the seven communities more residents agreed with this policy idea than disagreed (range of difference: +1% to +20%). Taking this into consideration, opinion and policy were consistent in only one of seven communities. Although theoretically possible, it is infeasible in practice for local governments to adopt restrictions on alcohol outlet numbers under the current legislative framework. This finding therefore supports the finding in previous studies of low consistency for a policy that is not easy to adopt, in this case because of legislative restrictions, and perhaps economic pressures and industry lobbying against such measures.

The variation in consistency across communities, and in the number of policies used to reduce alcohol-related harm, could be due to differences in any of a range of factors, including voting systems (Hobolt & Klemmemsen, 2005; Kelleher, 2005), voter turnout at elections, and electoral competition (e.g., greater choice among candidates and policies) (Hill & Matsubayashi, 2005; Hill & Hinton-Andersson, 1995; Hansen, 1975; Verba & Nie, 1972). It could also be due to differences in the nature and extent of alcohol problems in each community, or differences in a number of other factors considered by policy theorists to be important to the policy process e.g., influence of various stakeholders, interest group activity, attitudes of politicians and bureaucrats, competition between issues for government attention, agenda capacity of government, and government resources (Birkland, 2005; Howlett & Ramesh, 2003; Sabatier, 1999). Developing measures to account for these factors in future research, along with other aspects of the environment in each community (e.g., media coverage of alcohol issues, socioeconomic conditions), would provide further insight into the opinion-policy relationship. Repeating the study at regular intervals (e.g., biennially) would also help determine the direction of the relationship.

Other possible reasons for the variation in consistency include differences in local government consultation procedures, with some more open to revealing alcohol as an issue than others. It may also be that the views of the majority are not conveyed to local government politicians equally across the seven study sites. This may explain the higher consistency in the rural areas. Policy makers in these areas may be more in touch with the general public and community sentiment than their contemporaries in larger areas, whose perceptions of opinion may come from those who submit their views to local government and constituents with whom they have regular contact. This has important implications for the new Auckland Supercity born from the merger of four cities and three districts to form the largest local government area in Australasia. The city will have to ensure its consultation procedures are capturing the views of all residents and not just those who have the means to express their opinions to local government.

In several of the study communities, and particularly in the largest metropolitan area, local government policy did not always reflect public opinion, despite the majority of residents supporting policies that research suggests would reduce alcohol-related harm. Consistency may be improved by more rigorous consultation by local government (particularly in larger communities) and more enabling central government legislation e.g., legislation that makes it feasible for local government to restrict the number and density of alcohol outlets in the area. There may also be value in increasing the salience of alcohol issues in the community, increasing and/or maintaining public support for restrictive policies (Casswell, Gilmore, Maguire, & Ransom, 1989), and promoting alcohol policy as an election issue.


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AUTHORS' NOTE: Dr. Maclennan was funded via an Accident Compensation Corporation Postgraduate Scholarship. The project was funded by the Health Research Council and the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand. We thank Dr Rebbecca Lilley and Gabrielle Davie of the University of Otago for reviewing a draft of the manuscript. For additional information about this article contact: Dr. Brett Maclennan, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, PO Box 56. 55 Hanover Street. Dunedin 9054, New Zealand. E-mail:
Sociodemographic information on the seven study locations

Locution          Population                Ethnicity

                                  %         %        %        %
                               European   Maori   Pacific   Asian

Alexandra            4,827        82        7      0.4        1

Dunedin City       118,683        79        6        2        5

Hamilton City      129,249        65       20        4       10

North Shore        205,605        68        6        3       19

Palmerston          75,540        71       15        4        7
North City

Selwin District     33,669        79        6        1        3

Wellington City    179,463        70        8        5       13

Locution            NZDep     Description
                  Score (a)

Alexandra            4.7      A small rural township, the service
                              center for well established
                              agricultural and horticultural
                              industries and growing wine and tourism

Dunedin City         5.4      A provincial city with a high
                              proportion (-15%) of students in the
                              population. Education is the mainstay
                              of the economy.

Hamilton City        6.0      A provincial city with a diverse
                              economy. It is located 130 kin south of
                              Auckland, New Zealand's most populous

North Shore          3.7      A metropolitan city, one of the 4
City                          cities (along with 3 districts)
                              comprising the new Auckland
                              Supercity'. Retail and business service
                              industries are the mainstay of the

Palmerston           5.6      A provincial city based around
North City                    education and agricultural industries.
                              Like Dunedin. it is also known as a
                              university city.

Selwin District      2.6      A district of rural communities based
                              around agricultural and horticultural
                              industries. The Lincoln township is
                              home to the agriculturally focused
                              Lincoln University.

Wellington City      4.2      A metropolitan city that is the seat of
                              New Zealand government. The city has a
                              large student population (3 tertiary
                              campuses) and financial and business
                              services sectors.

(a) Population weighted mean score 0 =least deprived: 10= most

Consistency between public opinion and local government
alcohol policy in the seven study communities

                                Alexandra              Dunedin

                          Supp.   Pol.   Con.   Supp.   Pol.   Con.

Restrictions on trading       84   Yes    Yes       81   Yes    Yes
  hours of on-licensed
Liquor ban bylaw(s)           75   Yes    Yes       82   Yes    Yes
Restrictions on alcohol       27    No    Yes       44    No    Yes
  outlet numbers
Restrictions on alcohol       56   Yes    Yes       62    No     No
Education programs /          65   Yes    Yes       65   Yes    Yes
  safety campaigns

                            Selwyn District         Wellington

                          Supp.   Pol.   Con.   Supp.   Pol.   Con.

Restrictions on trading       89   Yes    Yes       73   Yes    Yes
  hours of on-licensed
Liquor ban bylaw(s)           45    No    Yes       80   Yes    Yes
Restrictions on alcohol       45    No    Yes       41    No    Yes
  outlet numbers
Restrictions on alcohol       63   Yes    Yes       63    No     No
Education programs /          65   Yes    Yes       58   Yes    Yes
  safety campaigns

                           Palmerston North           Hamilton

                          Supp.   Pol.   Con.   Supp.   Pol.   Con.

Restrictions on trading       79   Yes    Yes       81   Yes    Yes
  hours of on-licensed
  Liquor ban bylaw(s)         87   Yes    Yes       85   Yes    Yes
Restrictions on alcohol       37    No    Yes       49    No    Yes
  outlet numbers
Restrictions on alcohol       61    No     No       69    No     No
Education programs /          66   Yes    Yes       68   Yes    Yes
  safety campaigns

                              North Shore

                          Supp.   Pol.   Con.

Restrictions on trading       72    No     No
  hours of on-licensed
Liquor ban bylaw(s)           73   Yes    Yes
Restrictions on alcohol       43    No    Yes
  outlet numbers
Restrictions on alcohol       59    No     No
Education programs /          68   Yes    Yes
  safety campaigns

Supp. = Percentage of the public that support the policy (does not
include those who were neutral towards the policy)

Pol. = Indicator of whether or not local government has the policy
in place

Con. = Indicator of whether or not local government policy is
consistent with public opinion
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Author:MacLennan, Brett; Kypri, Kypros; Langley, John; Room, Robin
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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