Fisking the Herald editorial

This may be the most ignorant fact challenged Herald editorial yet.

It says much for the burgeoning market for ready-to-drink alcopops that the liquor industry reacted so urgently to a threat to their popularity. A Government proposal to ban off-licence stores from selling alcopops with more than 6 per cent content had industry heavyweights beating a path to Justice Minister Judith Collins’ door. 

If the Government proposed to ban something, of course companies will resist that, especially when the ban would actually increase harmful drinking?

The fruits of their labour became obvious this week when for no good reason the Government backed down on its plan …

No good reasons, means the Herald doesn’t think readers deserve to hear the other side of the argument. That prohibition was not going to work, was unenforceable, and substitution was highly likely to increase harm from alcohol. Now you can debate those propositions, but the Herald decides they do not exist and their readers don’t need to be informed of them.

The Government had planned a tough line on alcopops because they are particularly harmful. Sweet-tasting, cheap and with a typical alcohol content of 8 to 10 per cent – twice that of most beers

This is such a stupid comparison – and one taken as a quote from certain lobby groups. Wine is three times the strength of most beers. Baileys is four times the strength. Spirits are eight times the strength. Absinthe is around 12 times the strength.

Beer is not what many RTD drinkers would substitute to. It is wine and self-mixed spirits – which are av average 13%.

they have become the favoured drink of many young women

Yes, and most young women don’t substitute to beer – they substitute to wine. Also young women tend to drink the 5% , not the 8% . The proposed ban would have not impacted them greatly. It would have impacted the older males who like their Woodstocks.

The Government’s original plan, incorporated in the Alcohol Reform Bill, was based on the belief that a mandatory lower alcohol level would persuade many drinkers to abandon alcopops and reduce their overall consumption of liquor.

Yes, many would abandon alcopops. But to think they would abandon liquor is about as sensible a belief as Scientology. There is empirical evidence from Australia that spirits consumption went up, as RTDs were singled out for tax increase. Does the Herald not believe in evidence based decision making? Surely the Herald thinks the Government should commission research on what should happen if they banned RTDs over 5% rather than merely make decisions based on a “belief”?

I’ve stated previously Curia did a stack of research on this issue for Independent Liquor NZ. Now some may say well you can’t trust it, because of whom commissioned it. Now I in no way accept that – but my response to that was always to plead that the Government through the Ministry of Health or Justice should go away and commission its own research amongst drinkers of RTDs as to what they would do if RTDs over 5% were banned. I am very confident they would get the same conclusions – there would be significant substitution to even higher alcohol products.

It also casts an even greater focus on the difference in approach to the liquor and tobacco industries. The tobacco giants have been under unrelenting assault, including, most recently, a ban on retail displays and a plan to follow Australia’s lead and introduce plain packaging. The comparison with the content and snail’s pace of alcohol reform could not be starker.

That is because tobacco, taken in moderation, still kills you. Alcohol does not. If you drink too much coke, it will kill you. Too much water will kill you. It is the abuse of alcohol that is the problem – not alcohol per se. With tobacco, it is entirely different.

The Law Commission will forever remain perplexed that several of its key recommendations after a painstaking inquiry, notably on minimum pricing and an increased excise tax, have not been included in the Alcohol Reform Bill. The Government’s timidity can only have encouraged the liquor industry to think it could take the sting out of a perfectly reasonable attempt to limit the damage caused by alcopops. 

In a final act of confusion the editorial wails that the Law Commission recommendations have not all been agreed to by the Government – yet doesn’t see fit to mention that Law Commission did not recommend the 5% limit on RTDs. To the contrary, it cited evidence that substitution would occur and said the focus should be on alcohol as a whole  not just a particular type of product (unless unsafe).

And the attempt was not reasonable. It was an attempt that was likely to actually increase harm, or even deaths, from alcohol. An 1125 bottle of vodka is far far more dangerous than a six pack or even a dozen RTDs. By the end of the night, people often self-mix at 50/50 which is over 20% alcohol – and sometimes you even up drinking spirits straight at 40% alcohol. It was ridicolous to try and target a 6% or 7% or 8% drink, which might push people onto drinking 13%, 20% or even 40% strengths drinks. And if you think that would not have happened, then I suggest you actually go out and talk to some young drinkers.

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