Professor Doug Sellman takes issue with a recent contributor to this page.
University of Canterbury lecturer Eric Crampton recently wrote a hard-hitting article on this page (Perspective, August 24) attacking my colleague Professor Jennie Connor and me, saying we had misrepresented a Canadian research study about alcohol.
We were, he wrote, "screamingly wrong", this "should have been obvious to anyone familiar with the literature", and additionally insinuated I am a "wowser". In contrast, he said of himself: "I work with and care about the numbers around alcohol policy" and "my read of [the Canadian] study was right".
Anyone can make mistakes and our first reaction was that perhaps we had. However, as should soon be clear to readers, it wasn't us who had got our facts wrong after all.
Common sense says that if you are going to stridently attack someone else's work and credibility, as Crampton did, and especially if you do it in an intellectually superior manner, you should make very sure you have your facts right.
But he hadn't checked his facts and the central argument of his article was wrong. What follows is an interesting story of how someone's political perspective appears to have got in the way of academic care.
Connor and I have spent three years as medical spokespeople for the group Alcohol Action, arguing for evidence-based changes to New Zealand's alcohol laws. Along with many other colleagues, we want to see a reduction in the widespread harm from dangerous drinking we observe in our professional work.
On July 3, 2012 we issued a press release recommending the government enacts a minimum price per standard drink of alcohol - to eliminate ultra-cheap drinks favoured by binge drinkers, young drinkers and heavy drinkers - and pointed to a Canadian study that showed "a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol reduces its consumption by 16 per cent relative to other drinks". Our wording was based closely on the paper's wording: 'Longitudinal estimates suggest that a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of an alcoholic beverage reduced its consumption relative to other beverages by 16.1 per cent (p0.001).'
Two days later Crampton wrote a damning critique of the press release on his personal blog, using the same arguments he later used in this Press article. However, it appears Crampton based his critique on a short Newstalk ZB news report of the press release, which quoted Jennie Connor saying, "studies show a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol reduces consumption 16 per cent". Note: the reporter had cut off the words "relative to other drinks", which would indeed be wrong if she had said it.
Crampton's blog piece, and his later Perspectives article, ridiculed the presumed mistake: "Can a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol really reduce total alcohol consumption by 16 per cent?" he wrote. "No". But if he had taken the basic precaution of checking the primary source, our press release, he would have seen the words "relative to other drinks" and realised that we had not misquoted the Canadian study at all.
Thus Crampton's main argument in the Press article was based on his own simple and avoidable mistake, which seems careless for a senior lecturer.
Indeed in his Perspective piece, Crampton actually quotes our press release with the words "relative to other drinks" intact without apparently realising it, because he then repeats the critique from his blog as if those words were not there.
Connor is one of New Zealand's top epidemiologists and medical specialists in public health, who works specifically in the field of alcohol policy and knows not only the literature but also the Canadian professor who wrote the article.
Crampton should take more care before attacking the reputation of an academic colleague.
But he is in fact not a neutral commentator. When his Press article appeared, he was in Australia as a guest speaker at an alcohol industry conference, and he has previously received alcohol industry funding for his university research.
Overall, Crampton's point seemed to be that there is not an alcohol crisis in New Zealand. Most New Zealanders won't agree and sadly for many of them this will be from first-hand experience. The statistics show there are at least 700,000 heavy drinkers in New Zealand according to the WHO standard, over 70,000 alcohol-related physical and sexual assaults every year and up to 3000 children being born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Jennie Connor's recent research, together with Sally Casswell in the most recent NZ Medical Journal, tells us more. They found that:
harm from other people's drinking is higher than harm from one's own drinking, especially for women and young people;
up to a half of criminal offences involve someone who had been drinking; self- reported violence involves a drinking perpetrator in about half of cases; and
about 40 per cent of those injured and 25 per cent of those killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes are not the drinker responsible.
We think this is a crisis; but fortunately there are things that can be done to reduce the harm. An easy one is ending ultra-cheap drinks, but this should be part of an integrated set of policies including restrictions on manipulative alcohol marketing and advertising and putting controls on the current 24-hour, everywhere availability of alcohol.
There is strong international research supporting the effectiveness of these policies. We await a government concerned enough about the victims of uncontrolled alcohol use and with guts enough to stand up to the alcohol industry. That day will come, just as it did with tobacco policy.
Meanwhile, let's debate the issues without personal attacks. I may drink less than Crampton - seeing the negative impacts on people and their families in a clinical practice stretching nearly 30 years does have an impact. But like the majority of my colleagues I still enjoy a few drinks with friends.
The alternative to our current, uncontrolled, heavy drinking culture is not 'wowsers' and prohibition. There are sensible, scientifically backed policies that will make New Zealand a better place for everyone.
Professor Doug Sellman is director of the National Addication Centre at the University of Otago.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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