One of the top wine stories in last week’s press in New Zealand, front page news in fact, was a report that wine prices (as a proxy for liquor in general) had fallen to such an extent over the last decade that they are now cheaper than bottled water.
The inference from this story was that the Government needed to act by increasing excise to stop the harm being caused by cheap alcohol.
This was of course the latest in a series of reports, this and several others emanating from the University of Otago, pushing the anti-alcohol agenda that dominates the Law Commission’s recent work (see http://doubtlesswinebusiness.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/the-tip-of-the-new-temperance-iceberg/ ).
Interestingly, the international press has cited the report as being “published in the New Zealand Medical Journal” when what was actually submitted to the Journal was a letter, meaning that it must have been accompanied by academic references (although presumably, as a letter, not subject to the standards of peer review required for full articles of scientific journals). If it had been subject to such peer review it is surely questionable whether, on the grounds of either methodology, statistical sampling or analysis, it would have been accepted for publication. Why? Simply because the article is patently polemical in nature and extraordinarily flimsy on each on each count as regards methodology or analysis.
By the next evening TV One News in New Zealand was already running a story scrutinising (and contradicting) the specific headline-seeking claims made in the report, even while missing the bigger picture analytical issues altogether. The print media had missed this opportunity completely before going to print.
Of much greater importance is the stark reality that this type of lobbying, adopting an attitude of faux scientific rigour or justification, will continue to emerge and is frankly winning the publicity battle even if the Government has adopted a reform package missing some of the key Law Commission recommendations, such as huge excise increases. Before that package is even fully in place, the anti-alcohol lobby is adopting a campaign designed to undermine confidence in the reforms (consistently criticised as inadequate even before there has been a chance to see if they have an effect).
What was claimed?
The headline was simple: alcohol is cheaper than water. The report claimed that as a consequence of long-term trends alcoholic beverages could now be purchased for less than the price of water, the implication being, in other words, artificially cheap (because how else could it be cheaper than water, after all).
The published findings were that a 250ml glass of milk cost, and of bottled water cost “somewhat more at 67c a glass”. By contrast alcoholic beverages, all cited as “standard drinks” rather than 250ml equivalents – a substantial difference in actual volume terms, especially as regards an “apples with apples” comparison – “can be purchased as low as” cask wine at 62 cents a standard drink, beer at 64 cents, bottled wine at 65 cents and spirits at 78 cents. The “can be purchased as low as” was strangely underplayed or missed altogether by much of the print media coverage.
It was conveniently pointed out by the report author, however, when queried by the TV News coverage, which found bottled water as low as 21 cents, cask wine at 71 cents and beer at $1.10, that prices fluctuate and the low prices resulted from “specials” (which surely was worthy of having been spelt out in the original report if it was of such numerical significance).
In the meantime, the report, and its analysis, continues to gather international press coverage.
The Report Conclusions
Quite aside from the “results” of the analysis, the conclusions drawn in the press release have little causal nexus with the study itself. A study purporting to be of the price of alcohol over time, and in particular as it compares with the average wage (presumably gleaned, unlike the price data, from Statistics New Zealand), concluded with a number of assertions including the need for an increase in tax on alcohol, restrictions on alcohol marketing and sponsorship, limiting off-licence premises and reducing the legal blood alcohol level for driving.
The news release on the report also referred to both the drink drive alcohol limit and binge drinking despite these being two quite different (and unrelated) forms of alcohol-based harm.
Professor Doug Sellman of the Alcohol Action Group (also an academic from the University of Otago) was quoted as saying the new study made the issue clear-cut – “No one can say you’re talking it up. Low prices equal harm.” He may be an academic, but it would appear he is not a logician. The fact is that this analytical conclusion simply cannot be conclusively drawn from the study, regardless of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the data.
Quite what several of the report recommendations had to do with the specific analysis is obscure. In the absence of spelling out the causal relationships, it is difficult not to conclude that the research project suffered from analytical bias and predetermination of results.
For example, there is a strong appearance that the study avoided the lowest possible prices for bottled water but sought out the lowest possible prices for alcohol. If so, this would amount to intellectual dishonesty.
Quite aside from the numbers (where different types of alcohol are priced), in the balance of the report alcohol is treated as a universal concept with no differentiation as regards the widely varied behaviour of different consumers of different alcoholic beverages in different settings. The things that actually make up “drinking cultures”.
It is all the more a pity, because for some people this was really a missed opportunity to criticise the level of profiteering in bottled water prices (especially when compared with the low price of generally very reliable New Zealand tap water).
The two main flaws in the report are:
- Questionable methodology – not simply pricing water high and alcohol low, but the process of checking and verifying the alcohol prices. Is wine really readily available (let alone sought out by binge drinkers) for $5.00 per bottle (65 cents per standard glass assuming 13% alcohol – probably high for most cask wine – and accordingly 7.7 standard glasses per 750ml bottle)? Remember that at this level the ex-winery excise impost would be over $2.02 per bottle, including GST but before allowing for the fact that supermarket/retail margins are also marked up on the excise inclusive price they receive and if there is a distributor there would be an additional margin on excise as well. The GST rate used here is 12.5%, presumably the level applied in the research despite the fact that this has increased to 15% since 1 October, and despite the fact that all wine will carry the additional GST on excise regardless of whether the price of the wine has been increased or not at retail level.
- Lack of context. Given the sweeping pronouncements made regarding the price of different forms of alcohol, the fact of the economic environment was not mentioned in the University press release. The fact that the wine trade has been in the deepest recession in more than a generation is ignored, let alone the enormous implications this has for wine prices. Not only is the industry globally dealing with issues of oversupply, but individual firms are responding with survival strategies that must affect pricing. Ironically, the situation is exacerbated by the wine businesses that don’t survive, when the receivers and liquidators of such businesses drop stocks on the market at heavily discounted prices. This is nothing to do with alcohol policy. It is cold, hard reality. Having said that (and having seen examples of three such liquidation wine clearances in one supermarket today), I strongly question whether much if any of this wine has ended up being consumed as part of an alcoholic binge by a teenager or by someone older. In the absence of any form of contrary proof, I must assert that the causal nexus of harm, surely fundamental to research of academic standards, is woefully missing.
While on this subject, the attack on supermarkets’ prices must also be scrutinised. Supermarkets have long been accused, sometimes with reason, of using alcohol as a loss leader to attract customers. It is not so clear, however, how prevalent this practice is any longer. Both the major supermarket chains in New Zealand now maintain that they refrain from using alcohol as a deliberate price loss leader. Despite the occasionally very low (not $5.00 though) level of prices in supermarkets, this assertion is credible. The vast majority of low priced wine (although not necessarily other forms of alcohol) in supermarkets is brought about by the factor discussed above – businesses competing by lowering prices, in order to move stock, in order to maintain cash flows, in order to survive. Forcing minimum prices is simply going to cut off the short-term ability of some businesses to survive. It is not going to solve any social problems.
In the meantime another argument is lost, and that is whether the sale of liquor (at the moment meaning beer and wine) through supermarkets is on balance a socially positive thing rather than a negative. Quite aside from the views of many in the wider wine industry regarding supermarkets, the fact is that supermarket shoppers are more likely to be buying wine to go with food. Surely that is something to be encouraged rather than discouraged? Surely that is a huge step toward a more responsible drinking culture, rather than the opposite.