The soft option
Michael Cameron is part of a Waikato University team looking at the link between liquor stores and crime in a massive new study. He talks to Alistair Bone .
Waikato University's Michael Cameron has the old chicken and egg problem. Three things he knows for sure: in South Auckland, there are a lot of places to buy booze, the liquor stores are concentrated in poor areas and there is a lot of crime in those areas. But proving those things are connected may not be as obvious as one would think. Maybe having lots of places to buy alcohol causes crime, or maybe areas with more crime have lower property values and are good places to put liquor stores. Or it could be that places that have more crime are also where people drink more, so it makes sense to put your liquor outlets there. Causality is key, so the university's National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis (NIDEA) is setting out to get to the bottom of it. The original study looked at Manukau over one year. The new study will look at the whole of the North Island over six years, including millions of calls to police.
The team members already know some interesting things, some of them obvious, when you think about it. “Off-licences [liquor stores] spread themselves out,” says Cameron. “So you can find one that is close to you. And they tend to be closer together when in more deprived areas. We think that's related to the travel costs of getting to them, which is not as relevant in richer areas.”
Pubs and clubs, on the other hand, clump together. “When you go to a bar, you often don't go to a particular bar, you go to a location where you know there are bars,” says Cameron.
Other things are not so obvious. Researchers checked the price of Vodka Cruisers, Lion Red beer and cask wine in off-licences in Manukau and Hamilton. They expected that places with lots of liquor stores would compete on price. It wasn't the case at all.
“We found that the biggest determinant of price is local social deprivation. In the poorer areas, prices are lower. The degree of that was much, much bigger than we expected. Once we account for that, it made every other factor insignificant.”
The kind of bother found around the different type of establishments also varied.
Places with a high density of off-licences saw more violence, sexual offences and drug and alcohol crimes.
A high density of on-licences produced all that and property damage, antisocial behaviour, dishonesty offences and traffic violations, too.
It still isn't that simple, though. In Cameron's current view, off-licences still create most of the problems.
“People go into town already drunk because they've preloaded [been drinking elsewhere]. And if prices were higher at off-licences, then maybe there would be a little bit less of that.”
The current spike in the number of liquor shops began in 1989, when the new Sale of Liquor Act allowed supermarkets and grocery stores to sell alcohol and changed the rules around bottle shops.
“The provision for licensees to show there was a need for another outlet and the input from the local council was removed. There has been a proliferation of outlets because of that - now you only need to show that you are of good character.”
The good characters subsequently opened an extra 141 off-licences just in Manukau between 1990 and February 2008. On-licences granted in the same area increased by nearly 200 in the same time. Currently there are approximately 7000 places to buy booze in the North Island. Cameron says community opposition to more liquor outlets has grown, with notable marches in Manukau and other low-income suburbs like Cannons Creek near Porirua.
But people talked to for the Manukau study also warned of unintended consequences if bottle shop numbers are limited. They worried that there would be more drink-driving if liquor stores were spaced more than walking distance away. Or that unlicensed backyard bars, apparently already common in the area, would proliferate further.
The researchers themselves know that it might not be as simple as more booze sold equals more bad things happening. A study in 2005 looked at single vehicle night-time accidents in relation to off-licences. It found that off-licence density was high in Central Auckland and overall, but didn't appear to have a negative effect, except in the Counties-Manukau region. As others have found overseas, the Manukau report said, the “relationships between liquor outlet density and outcome variables in New Zealand are highly context specific”.
In other words, it matters where all this is happening. How much it matters and where is what the new work will tell the scientists more about.
“We will be able to tease out if an outlet is added to an area, does that add to the number of police events? We still won't be able to definitively show causality, but we are getting closer,” says Cameron.
The police are very interested in what the researchers will turn up. Officers collect data in the form of the "last drink survey", which finds out where drunk people who get in trouble with the law had their last drink. Cameron says it helps, but the information gathered is pretty imperfect.
The research team also have about $100,000 from the Alcohol Advisory Council (Alac) to help them out. Cameron says there has been no pressure and funding from a body generally conservative on matters of alcohol will have no impact at all on the findings.
Part of the money will be used to pay an intern to check liquor prices week to week in Hamilton's CBD. Cameron says it's an unusual environment, as the area is dominated by just two players who happen to be brothers-in-law.
The project's findings will be out in February, but there's doubt on whether it will make any difference
The Alcohol Reform Bill made its way into Parliament after the report on Manukau and its layers of bottle shops came out. The final vote on the bill is in late October, but it will keep the legal buying age at 18 at both off and on-licences and let the alcohol industry self-regulate the sale and strength of RTDs, the syrupy drinks of choice for bingers and 14-year-olds, according to the Law Commission. Cameron was disappointed.
“For Hamilton, the one best thing they could have done would be to split the age - so you could only buy from an off-licence at 20.”
Cameron says 18 and 19-year-olds were already drinking when the legal purchase age was 20. With the legal age at 18, booze is being bought at bottle stores and passed on to 16 and 17-year-olds by their teenage friends. But with alcohol lobbyists actively pitching to ministers, Parliament disregarded advice from a number of experts.
Cameron remains diplomatic. The question of the chicken and the egg still remains to be solved, but some things are already certain. “They took the soft option,” he says.