Young people can buy more than a week's worth of booze for less than an hour's wages.
As MPs prepare to debate a 50 per cent rise in alcohol excise, Dominion Post research shows pre-mixed, ready-to-drink (RTD) alcoholic cocktails are cheaper to buy than same-sized cans of soft drink.
For $10, youngsters can get their hands on 11 standard drinks' worth of knock-down spirits at most bottle stores.
Bottles of wine can regularly be bought for $7; a dozen beer, $10; but the cheapest RTDs work out at as little as 47c per standard drink.
For just $11.98 - less than an hour's work on the $13.50 minimum wage - a teen can buy eight 330ml cans of pre-mixed whisky and cola and knock back more booze than is recommended for an adult male in a week.
The dangers are clear, Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams says. "Our heaviest drinkers are our younger age groups . . . about half of the alcohol consumed in New Zealand is consumed in heavy-drinking situations.
"Price matters: You can buy a lot if you want to buy it . . . and get hammered."
RTDs also served as a gateway to hard liquor, she said.
"We know that ready-to-drinks are linked with heavy-drinking behaviour and they're popular with the young group.
"[But] the ready-to-drinks have sort of plateaued, and what is happening is spirits are picking up. So we're not talking 8 per cent or 10 per cent, we're talking 40 per cent alcohol.
"We are introducing heavy spirits to young drinkers . . . and increasing the level of harm they're exposed to."
According to Treasury figures, there were 30.5 million litres of RTD cocktails available on New Zealand shelves in 2011. And the market is growing - spirit-based RTD drinks have increased by 39 per cent since 2006.
The sugary, brightly packaged cocktails are the drink of choice for 12- to 17-year-olds. By contrast, they are the least-preferred drink among those aged over 18.
Public health associate professor Nick Wilson, from Otago University in Wellington, said any price rise would have a dramatic effect.
"It would be the most effective thing. Prices generally are thought to be the major factor in consumption, and youth particularly are very price-conscious. If the price went up, the law of economics would be that youth consumption would go down."
Having fewer drunk youths would have wide-reaching benefits: "That means less car crashes, less involvement in violent crimes . . . and other types of offending.
"And I think other people, if they have a heart attack on a Friday or Saturday night, they would appreciate not having an emergency department being clogged up with drunk youths vomiting and fighting."
According to a Law Commission report from 2010, a 50 per cent rise in the excise would raise the price of a 330ml bottle of 4 per cent alcohol beer by $0.17, a 750ml bottle of wine by $0.96, and a 750ml bottle of spirits by $6.96.
It would also drive down alcohol consumption by about 5 per cent and "produce a significant reduction in a range of alcohol-related harms", creating a $72 million net benefit to the economy.
Critics argue it would unfairly punish responsible drinkers.
The purchase-age part of the Alcohol Reform Bill was voted on in a conscience vote last month, but the rest of the bill is still to be debated. It is expected to have its committee-stage debate from October 23.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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