Heavy-drinking Kiwis go for cheaper alcohol

New results from an international alcohol research collaboration show that heavy-drinking New Zealanders tend to buy cheaper, off-premise alcohol, and purchase it at later times.

NZbottlesThe survey of the purchasing behaviour of New Zealanders at on- and off-premise outlets covered 1,900 drinkers aged 18 years and older. The results showed that heavier drinkers were more likely to buy cheaper alcohol from off-premise outlets, and purchase at later times. The authors of the study suggest that these results could be used to inform alcohol policy initiatives relating to price and trading hours.

The research is published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, more information can be found in this release from the journal.

“These results have important implications for local governments as well as communities,” said lead author Sally Casswell, director of Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (SHORE) at Massey University in Auckland. “It is the communities that have to deal with alcohol-related disorders and violence, which are linked to heavier drinking which is, in turn, linked to longer hours spent drinking in bars and pubs. Sales from off-license premises of takeaway alcohol have also been linked with family violence and child maltreatment. Our findings support the importance of trading hours, and this is one policy which may be changed quickly – unlike reducing density, for example, which may take longer to achieve.”

The research was undertaken as part of the International Alcohol Control (IAC) study, a newly developed international collaborative project designed to collect comparative data on alcohol consumption and policy-relevant behaviours in both high- and middle/low-income countries. New Zealand is the first of 11 IAC member countries to publish the national results of a IAC standardised survey tool.

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Dr Eric Crampton,Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Canterbury, comments:

“The article provides a really interesting survey of drinking habits among New Zealand drinkers. They find that, among Kiwis reporting having consumed alcohol in the past six months, alcohol was reasonably affordable and easily accessible. Drinkers attend pubs reasonably frequently and drink relatively less at pubs than they do on the rarer occasions that they attend nightclubs; I expect this reflects that nightclubs may be more likely to be part of a special event than a visit to the local pub.”

“The authors find that individuals purchasing alcohol after 2 am at an on-licence premise were more likely to have consumed larger amounts of alcohol than those purchasing alcohol before 2 am. I think, though, that they are too quick to conclude that closing times would usefully address heavy drinking. If those at the bar at 12 am include a greater proportion of light drinkers, and the light drinkers tend to go home earlier, we would expect that those purchasing alcohol after 2 am would consist disproportionately of those who were drinking more heavily earlier in the evening and who decided to stay at the bar rather than go home.”

“The authors note correlations between the price of drinks at a venue and the amount consumed; they then argue that lower prices cause differences in quantity consumed at different venues. I wonder about causality here. If you know you only want to have one or two drinks, you might go to the cocktail bar with very expensive and fancy drinks; if you’re interested in a heavier drinking session, you might make sure to hit the venue that you know is cheaper. We then could pretty easily see a relationship between prices at venues and quantities consumed that were due in large part to individuals’ choosing venues appropriate to their intended evening. Similarly, they find drinkers paying lower prices for off-premise alcohol were more likely to drink larger amounts. An equally plausible interpretation is that individuals wishing to drink a larger amount will be more likely to have price in mind when making their purchase, while somebody only intending on having one or two drinks might go for a pricier craft beer or a nicer bottle of wine.”

“Whether their findings on price are causal, or simply correlations, matter for policy. They argue that measures like tax increases or minimum prices would particularly target heavier drinking because individuals are more likely to report having paid less for their alcohol on occasions of heavy drinking. But if people are instead choosing lower cost products for those days when they intend on consuming a larger amount, because they’re budget conscious, price hikes would then have a more limited effect on consumption. Byrnes et al (2012) found that price increases in Australia reduced consumption among lighter drinkers, but did not have much effect on heavy drinking among heavy drinkers. Instead, heavy drinkers saved up money for the weekend binge by drinking less on days in which they would have consumed a smaller amount of alcohol. Wagenaar’s earlier metastudy on prices and consumption showed that a 10% increase in alcohol prices was associated with a 2.8% reduction in heavier drinkers’ consumption, but a 4.4% decrease in average consumption. And while the studies in Wagenaar’s metastudy did not focus on prices in the lower ranges, Stockwell, Auld et al (2012) found that a 10% increase in the minimum price of alcohol in British Columbia reduced overall consumption by 3.4%, a figure entirely in line with the prior Wagenaar study. We then need to worry about whether price measures are appropriately targeted, or whether the costs imposed on moderate drinkers by price measures are worth it. Heavy drinkers aren’t nearly as sensitive to price measures as are lighter drinkers. We could similarly curb speeding by putting the petrol tax up to $6/litre, but it might not be the best way of addressing the harms of speeding.”

Dr. Eric Crampton is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Canterbury. His research on alcohol issues is supported in part by the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, through a grant administered by the University of Canterbury.