Binge drinking warnings 'overstated'

23:17, Nov 22 2012
Eric Crampton
ERIC CRAMPTON: Senior lecturer in economics at Canterbury University.

Those who enjoy a glass or two should ignore the ''badly overstated'' warnings about alcohol over the festive season, a University of Canterbury academic says.

The flurry of alcohol warnings ahead of Christmas were overstated and incorrect, said economics lecturer Dr Eric Crampton. ''Nobody warns us about the warnings."

"And there's danger in that ... since some of the warnings are either false or badly overstated.''

However, another Christchurch-based addiction expert said alcohol was "a known neurotoxin" and the industry had an ethical responsibility to warn the public about its product.

Crampton said health warnings on alcohol focused ''exclusively'' on curbing the harm experienced by heavy drinkers but ignored the enjoyment for moderate drinkers. This risked doing more harm than good, Crampton said.

''It is hard to open the paper without finding dire warnings about alcohol's costs to the country. But how often do we hear that drinkers earn more than non-drinkers?


"Or that light drinkers have lower mortality risk than non-drinkers? Or that light-to-moderate drinking predicts better ageing outcomes?

"Or, that light drinking during pregnancy really does not seem associated with adverse outcomes,'' he said.

Crampton hit headlines in August when he said that problem drinking among youth had not increased enough to warrant raising the drinking age to 20.

He will deliver a public lecture on Wednesday as part of the University of Canterbury's What If Wednesday series, on the ''issues of alcohol and what if alcohol's social costs were overstated''.

Crampton said recent figures put the social cost of alcohol at about $4.8 billion.

He said when that figure was examined, only one fifth of it really counted as a cost to society.

''Should we really count the $700 million that heavier drinkers spent on their own alcohol as being a cost to the country,'' he said.

Crampton acknowledged there are ''serious and real harms associated with heavy drinking'' but said that moderate drinkers should use common sense over the holiday season, relax, and enjoy themselves.

National Addiction Centre director Professor Doug Sellman said drinking while pregnant could ''absolutely'' cause harm.

''Alcohol is a known neurotoxin, he said. ''No credible medical authority is now advising any drinking for women who are pregnant.''

He said evidence showed that heavy drinkers did not respond to health warnings. ''But ethically, the alcohol industry should be telling all their customers about the potential negative health effects of their product."

Sellman said the ''humpty dumpty terms'' of moderate drinking and responsible drinking were too vague.

''A leading alcohol industry representative in a discussion about drinking levels told me he had drunk 10 standard drinks the night before and because he caused no one any harm and was feeling ok considered this to be an example of moderate drinking,'' he said.

A study by the Australian Health and Medical Research Council used the ''one in 100 lifetime risk of death criterion'' to define low risk drinking.

This defines low risk drinking as consuming, on average, no more than 2 standard drinks a day across a lifetime.

''Low risk drinking can be associated with increased conviviality which is a definite plus; especially for people who are a little socially awkward or socially anxious, like a lot of New Zealanders are,'' Sellman said.

''The risk is that such people come to rely on the drug (alcohol) to help their socialisation to the point that they always need it to feel comfortable in social situations.

''Unfortunately most social events in contemporary New Zealand are drug taking (drinking) events.'' 

The Press