Here’s a tale of two headlines:
A bizarre interview with Dr Nicki Jackson on the AM show
Yesterday Alcohol Healthwatch’s Dr Nicki Jackson was on the AM show to talk about a recent study on pre-loading behaviour, heavy drinking and drink prices.
Watch the video. No really, this one’s worth watching just to observe how quickly the interview veers off track from the evidence found in the study, to random policy recommendations that have nothing to do with the study’s findings.
I’m using the term ‘interview’ loosely here. More accurately, it was a pleasant conversation between two like-minded individuals affirming each other’s pre-conceived beliefs.
The interview was based on a study that compared the drinking behaviour of 25 different countries including NZ. Well, kind of. Really, the interview touched a little on the study and then a lot more what appeared to be sporadic policy recommendations that did not follow from the study’s findings at all.
So what did the study find?
First, the study found that Kiwis are way up there in the international rankings for pre-loading.Having done some totally unofficial ethnographic research during my time as an Otago University student, I like probably many New Zealanders was not really surprised about this. 78.7% of us are have been identified as pre-loaders, compared 62.6% across all countries though.
What was surprising though, and what should have been the big news story, is that not all pre-loading leads to heavy drinking. In fact, comparatively, New Zealand ranks low on the global rankings at just 5.6%.
Why such a difference? Well, the first thing to note is that pre-loading and heavy drinking are not synonymous. Pre-loading involves any drinking from having a couple of wines before hitting town, to downing a box of beers. So while some of us may be turning up to bars wasted, it appears a lot of us are not.
If the problem that needs to be addressed is dangerous and irresponsible drinking, especially when that drinking leads to anti-social behaviour, it is not clear from these stats that pre-loading is a huge contribution.
Even more surprising is that the study challenged another easy assumption that people are pre-loading because drinks in bars and clubs is too expensive. That perception just does not hold in New Zealand. In fact, the ratio between on-license and off-license beverage prices was one of the lowest in the country rankings. People aren’t pre-loading because it’s cheaper to drink at home.
So what the study found was that while there was a relationship between the pre-loading and the prevalence of drinking (the number of drinkers) there was no significant relationship between pre-loading and heavy drinking.
An interesting bit is considering the relationship between drink prices and pre-loading/heavy drinking. The researchers theorise that heavy drinking might be more prevalent in countries with greater price differences between on-license and off-license places. That’s because people might not be able to afford to go out and drink, so they just drink heavily at home. In contrast, where there is little price difference (such as in NZ), people might drink at home and continue to drink when they go out because they can afford to. But in countries like NZ, the study shows that the very act of pre-loading isn’t problematic in itself.
What policy recommendations was Jackson proposing?
- Jackson argues that ‘People tend to pre-load when the price of buying alcohol at a bar, club or restaurant is higher than the price of buying alcohol from a bottle store, and that difference in price needs to be addressed through taxes.’
- But the study didn’t find that at all. In New Zealand, the price difference isn’t that large. Sure, there is some difference, just as there is a price difference for virtually everything else you purchase when you go out, from steak to soft drink to fries (though the company isn’t always as good at home). And in countries where the differences are significant, it is likely those people will simply skip going to town, and simply be counted as heavy drinkers, not pre-loaders.
- Nevertheless, is Jackson’s proposal to increase excise on bottle stores but not bars to close the gap? Not to state the obvious, but if people really are that price responsive, closing the gap will mean more people will simply shift to drinking in town (or the same people will shift to drinking more in town).
- Increasing excise taxes is also a pretty blunt tool for reducing the 5.6% of heavy drinkers. Sure, some irresponsible drinkers will be purchasing their booze from bottle stores. But so does everyone else, from people like me who like the convenience of buying bottle of wine for the weekend, to people hoping for a bit more alcohol variety than their local supermarket.
- Jackson also blames the high number of liquor outlets and the price competition between them as a reason for pre-loading.
- But again, pre-loading isn’t synonymous with heavy drinking…it’s not the major problem.And again with the blunt instrument argument: they’re not just frequented by problematic drinkers. Responsible consumers benefit from the convenience and affordability.
- Jackson proposes the ban of single drink purchases
- If the problem is off-license drinks being too cheap and too convenient, then this recommendation is entirely counter-intuitive. Buying in bulk is cheaper and if the aim is heavy drinking, it is more convenient.
Why Michael Daly from Fairfax gets it right
Thankfully, all is not lost in the world of reporting on public health studies. Michael Daly’s write-up on Stuff is particularly good. It describes what the study found, and what it didn’t find (a strong relationship between pre-loading and heavy drinking). Best of all, it didn’t try and tack on policy solutions that were far removed from the study’s findings.
***Sidenote: I’ve just seen this article in the Herald where Otago Univeristy’s Professor Jennie Connor makes similar assumptions/recommendations to Jackson. The same responses listed above apply.