Will big bucks stop the boozing?

Will price hikes deter binge drinkers?

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 14:00 16/11/2013
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DOING THE MATHS: How much does it cost to get annihilated these days?

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Does hiking the price of booze deter people from drinking alcohol? Not if Cup Week is anything to go by. 

With one hand on a plastic pint of lager and the other attending to business he hovered, slightly swaying, over the urinal with a smart phone wedged between his neck and ear.

"I've been here 45 minutes and I'm probably three quarters cut already," he yelled at the person down the other end of the line who was seemingly trying to figure out a reasonable excuse to skive off work and come down to Addington Raceway where 20,000 people had congregated to drink in the atmosphere, the horse races and the booze.

"Just say Zoe is real sick and you have to go home," he said. "Then just come here and get pissed."

He only had a quarter left to go.

Outside, St John's ambulance officers were handing out preemptive band aids to groups of women who, later in the day, could be seen with those same bandaids affixed to their heels, their knees and their toes. The day was young. So was the crowd.

Nineteen-year-old Liam Gallagher-Power had already done the maths. He had lined up at the alcohol tent, which had taken on a curious tinge of stale beer, body odour and hotdogs, and tried to figure out how much bang he could get for his hard won buck. The previous week he had lost $100 betting on the Melbourne Cup. He was careful now not to overspend.

A Steinlager Light was $5, a Steinlager Pure was $7.50, RTDs were a stable $8 but a can of Speights could be procured for $6.

"More alcohol in that," his friend Sean Feast said, taking another swig from the blue aluminium can. Nearby someone else had come up with a solution of their own - he poured a Smirnoff Vodka drink into the top of a friend's beer pint. A shandy of sorts.

The price of alcohol has long been touted as the panacea to New Zealand's apparent rampant alcohol consumption. The cost is too low, the Law Commission recommended in its report into alcohol harm. The cost is too low, said the Labour Party in hoping to get an amendment to the Alcohol Reform Bill.

Otago University research, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, showed alcohol had become more and more affordable over the decade that it was now cheaper than bottled water and getting down to the price of milk.

Associate Professor Nick Wilson and co-author Dr Fiona Gunasekara found discounted cask wine could cost as little as 62c for a standard drink, discounted beer 64c, discounted bottled wine 65c and spirits 78c. That compared to 67c for a 250ml glass of bottled water and 43c for a glass of milk.

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Wilson said that although the price of alcoholic drinks rose over the decade, the average hourly wage increased more.

The research shows it took 21 minutes in 1999 for a worker on the average hourly wage to afford enough beer to reach the legal driving limit. In 2009, it took only 17 minutes.

But did it even matter?

For the year ended December 2012 compared with the year ended December 2011 the total volume of alcoholic beverages available for consumption actually fell 3.3 per cent, to 457 million litres. The volume of pure alcohol available per person aged 15 years and over fell 1.7 per cent to 9.3 litres - the equivalent to an average of 2.0 standard drinks per person per day.

At Christchurch Cup Day, however, it would be safe to assume that this statistic was more inflated.

Young men - some with pimples and others with minimal pore count - balanced cardboard trays of beer and free energy drinks that were handed out at the entrance. One dreadlocked man took his girlfriend in arm as he struggled to maintain the spirit level of two pints of beer - one in each hand. Taking his eye off the direction he was travelling he accidentally bumped into another man wearing a three-piece suit and wayfarer sunglasses.

"Come on," the man declared.

The dreadlocked chap could only shrug with glazed eyes, look at his diminished plastic cups, seemingly acquiescing to the fact that a day on the drink can be painful: painful for the body, and painful for the wallet.

So how much does it cost to get annihilated these days?

At The Mill you could buy a litre bottle of Mad Jacks 13 per cent alcohol for $10. It was a tactic employed by many of the young men and women who frequented the racecourse during the day. According to some spoken to, Ready to Drink cola and bourbon was one of the best deals around. One allowed the purchaser to procure four 440ml cans of the stuff with an alcohol content of 8 per cent for $10.99.

"You would never get those sort of prices through the gates," one slurring punter said. "It's economics."

But does making something more expensive deter excessive drinking?

Professor Tim Stockwell, of Canada's University of Victoria, published a paper last year, drawing on 20 years of alcohol sales data. It showed the shock of raised liquor prices dampened sales significantly. The conservative estimate was that, for every 10 per cent rise in prices, there was a 3.4 per cent drop in consumption, Stockwell said.

"Alcohol is like all commodities - prices go up and consumption goes down, all else being equal."

However, opponents of the idea, such as Lion, say it is not enough for minimum pricing merely to decrease consumption. It also had to make a difference to the big problem of binge drinking.

A report by Eric Crampton, an economist at the University of Canterbury, concluded that pricing policies were not effective enough to be worth introducing.

It said there was definite evidence that problem drinkers reduced their consumption when prices rose sharply, but the effect was more marked on moderate drinkers. A 10 per cent price rise saw moderate drinkers cut their consumption by 4.4 per cent, against 2.8 per cent among heavy drinkers.

An Auckland University of Technology study, reported in its magazine Insight, also says that price rises as high as 25 per cent had little effect on buying behaviour among students sampled in both Australia and New Zealand.

AUT business school Associate Professor Andrew Parsons said an approach like those used in anti- smoking have been shown to be more effective social interventions.

"The influence of perceived social norms on consumer behaviour around drinking far outweighs the influence of price and alcohol content variations."

The Ministry of Justice started looking two years ago at how effective minimum pricing would be in reducing alcohol consumption. However, Justice Minister Judith Collins said last month it was still investigating the idea but the biggest priority has been getting ready for the alcohol law changes - which come into force in December - dealing with opening hours, licensing and the supply of alcohol to young people.

"F...it I don't care," a punter declared. The politics, at this stage, did not matter. His rolling tobacco had just fallen out of its paper and onto the ground next to a green wheelie bin. He picked it up, placed it back in its place and tried to light it. The wind was blowing cold and grey. The lighter was failing.

"I'm over it, aye," he conceded. The day was wearing on.

Television personalities Jono and Ben had just endured the enthusiastic mounting of several men who proceeded to refer to them as only someone with limited faculties about them could. The TV hosts smiled and grinned as best they could. Of course they did. They were on camera.

Nearby three police officers approached a man who seemed to be staggering.

"How's it going," one asked. "Had a bit to drink today?"

The man mumbled.

"He's f.....," someone said.

The officer took down the man's name as he wobbled back and forth.

"You can't even stand straight," the officer said. "You're not going to be here much later."

They were going to take him to the "detox centre" - a delineated area out the back and away from the view of punters where ambulance staff were set up to cater to those that had overindulged during the day. On Tuesday it was well attended but there was only one arrest.

"What are you doing?" a friend yelled at the soon-to-be detoxicated punter.

He turned and with glassy, blood-shot eyes gestured to nothing in particular. With the police at his side, he passed the "style stakes" tent where attendees dressed up for the occasion could have their photo professionally taken looking their best. Three women were doing a "Charlie's Angels" pose.

The man was then guided through the entrance of the detox area. There was free injury treatment there, a sign declared. Ambulance staff treated about 70 people during the course of the day. The man's day was likely over but all about him was dancing and laughing. He disappeared behind its walls as an electric golf cart laden with five boxes of beer rolled silently by.

- The Press

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