Fisking the Herald editorial

August 24th, 2012 at 11:10 am by David Farrar

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 alcohol 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% RTDs, not the 8% RTDs. 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.

Some sense on RTDs

August 23rd, 2012 at 1:22 pm by David Farrar

John Hartevelt at Stuff reports:

The liquor industry has scored a win over the planned regulation of RTDs in the Government’s alcohol reform package.

I think it is a win for common sense, and actually a win for reduced harm from alcohol.

Justice Minister Judith Collins yesterday revealed she had dumped an earlier plan to ban the sale of ”RTDs” (ready-to-drink) with more than 6 per cent alcohol content from off-license stores.

Alcohol reforms initially announced by former Justice Minister Simon Power originally included a ban on RTDs with 5 per cent alcohol or more from off-licenses.

The proposed ban was effectively a form of prohibition.  Research (a phone poll, two point of sale surveys and eight focus groups) Curia did for Independent Liquor left me in no doubt that the impact of trying to ban RTDs over 5% would be a significant substitution effect, with many people going from say 8% RTDs to (on average) 13% self-mixes. Note that the research Curia did for ILNZ was over a year ago, and I have no ongoing commercial relationship with them.

The experience in Australia with increasing taxes on RTDs also produced empirical evidence of increased substitution to spirits, and this is one of the reasons the Law Commission did not recommend this measure.

Instead, the bill will include a ”regulation-making power” for the Government to restrict the sale of RTDs in future. Until the powers are exercised, however, RTD sales will be left to work under the industry’s own code.

”The Government has decided to give the alcohol industry the opportunity to introduce its own measures to limit the harm to young people caused by RTDs,” Collins said.

”The industry has offered to put in place a voluntary code on RTDs. If the industry measures are ineffective, Government has the ability to take action through a regulation-making power in the bill. This allows restrictions on the sale of RTDs at any time in the future.” …

The association promised in April to:

– Limit the production and distribution of new RTDs to a maximum of two ”standard drinks” per single container.
– Show clearly the number of ”standard drinks” on each container.
– Ensure no RTDs have ”specific appeal to minors”.
– Comply with the Code for Advertising Liquor, administered by the Advertising Standards Authority.
– ”Invest and support” responsible drinking educational programmes.

There are some RTDs which are, shall we say, a but anti-social. I’m not a fan of the Bigfoot RTD which was a large 6 – 8 standard drinks in one container.  There is a certain incentive to finish a container, and people don’t tend to share containers as they might say individual drinks.

So a self-regulatory limit of say 2 standard drinks per container has merit in my opinion. A restriction on the number of drinks per container is much more sensible than trying to ban 6% RTDs, when people would then buy 40% vodka. The reality is that some RTD drinkers do not like the 5% RTDs (they call them lolly water) and prefer the stronger ones.

A limit of two standard drinks per container means they have as much alcohol as a standard double nip in a bar.

There were also two other problems with the proposed prohibition on RTDs over 5%. One is that under CER, the RTDs could be made in Australia, and imported here. We would simply be exporting jobs.

The third is that prohibition does not work as well as self-regulation. If you ban say 8% RTDs, then manufacturers could do inventive stuff like sell a container which has (for example) rum in one part and coke in the other, and you just mix them together to make your own RTD (just as many self-mix from spirits from mixers).

I have no doubt that the proposed prohibition on RTDs over 5% would have not only failed, it would have increased overall harm from alcohol. I am glad the Government is going for something that will work, over something that sounds good, but would be harmful.