Rising economic confidence and "aggressive" marketing techniques are the driving factors behind an 8.9 million litre rise in alcohol availability last year, says one concerned health organisation.The total volume of alcohol available for consumption in New Zealand did increase last year. So too did population. We usually look at per capita trends rather than total volumes.
Latest figures from Statistics New Zealand, which compared figures over the last five years, show the total volume of alcohol available in New Zealand rose to 466 million litres last year - the equivalent of 2.1 standard drinks per person aged 18 and over per day.
It represents an increase of almost 9 million litres from 2012, according to Statistics New Zealand.
Go to Stats NZ's Infoshare service. I cannot link directly to the data series, because StatsNZ uses session codes that won't allow it. But the series you need is ALC005AA. Copy that into the search bar that I've linked to above. Then select all years all series. This is what you get when you port it into Google Docs to get graphs.
So, what can we see here? Per capita alcohol availability dropped substantially from 1986 to 1988, levelled off, dropped substantially from 1990 through 1996 (recall that the big liberalisation came '89), then bounced around a bit with a mild rise through 2010 followed by a mild fall. The average per capita figure for those aged 15+ was 9.4 litres over the whole period, was 9.2 litres over the period since 2000, and was 9.3 litres for the period 2003-2013. The 2013 figure was 9.2 litres. Eyeballing it, we've had a slight reversion after a substantial decline in consumption, followed by a levelling-off since 2005.
The Herald's citing Alcohol Healthwatch as saying that rising economic confidence and aggressive marketing are behind a rise in alcohol availability, using "total volume of liquid containing alcohol" as the measure. The volume of pure alcohol per capita is basically flat over the last decade, but with a mild decline from 2010 to present: the period coinciding with "rising economic confidence". And if alcohol marketing has gotten more aggressive over the last year, it's had no obvious effect on consumption. If we take Rebecca Williams at her word that the marketing's gotten more aggressive, then I guess we might start worrying less about aggressive marketing.
Let's continue. Here's more from The Herald:
Williams is right on a couple of points. Beer has taken a declining share of total alcohol over the period since 1986, but with a very recent levelling-off. The StatsNZ series ALC016AA has the total litres of alcohol available per beverage category rather than per capita, but it's still useful for assessing relative market share across the categories. When we port it over to Google Docs, and with a bit of wrangling,* we get this:
Wine seems to have levelled off at a third of total alcohol since 2006 or so, spirits have risen markedly over the last decade, and beer's dropped. So Williams is right about that. But all of that needs to be read against the broad flatlined trend in per capita total consumption. She's painting the shift to potentially higher alcohol products as representing an increase in consumption of alcohol when per capita alcohol availability hasn't changed.
Further, is Williams suggesting that the beer companies don't market aggressively against each other? Didn't we hear a lot of outrage about aggressive beer promotion at the Rugby 7s? We can't just look at a change and blame aggressive marketing for those components that get a category increase when there's pretty similar marketing for the components that get a category decrease. My weekly supermarket flyers have more pages of wine ads than of beer ads, but there are plenty of ads for sales on slabs of beer too.
Because StatsNZ changed category definitions, we can only split out low and high alcohol spirits starting in 1995. Here's category shares from 1995 onwards:
When I look at this, I see pre-mixed, lower-alcohol spirits displacing beer rather than building demand for pure spirits. And, again, per capita consumption hasn't really grown much over the period.
Summing up, where Williams comes up with marketing- and economy-based explanations for increases in total alcohol availability and for category shifts, and worries that increased consumption of low-alcohol spirits is a gateway to harder spirits, we find instead:
- No increase in per capita alcohol availability;
- No plausible story explaining why marketing has been so effective for RTDs and wine and so useless for beer;
- No plausible story explaining why improved economic conditions helped RTDs and wine but hurt beer;
- No plausible story explaining why per capita trends in total alcohol availability show a mild decline from 2010 through 2013, the period of economic recovery, when they're using economic recovery to explain changes in total alcohol availability;
- What looks like roughly constant market share for Beer + RTDs rather than RTDs being a gateway to proper whisky, though it's always possible that RTD drinkers will mature into spirits rather than shift to beer; either way, there's no increase in per capita availability.
Let's then help the Herald out a bit by re-writing their first couple paragraphs for them.
The total volume of pure alcohol available per person in New Zealand remained constant this year. While there was an 8.9 million litre rise in the total quantity of alcoholic beverages available this past year, this increase is largely explained by a rising population combined with a shift away from spirits-based drinks, which have more alcohol per unit of total liquid, and towards medium-strength beer and wine, which have a lot more water with their alcohol. And, this category change mostly looks like noise given the longer-term trends.
While professional anti-alcohol advocacy groups, whose existence depends on shouting "Monster! Monster!" whenever a new alcohol stat comes out, blamed rising economic confidence and aggressive marketing for the increased total volume of alcoholic beverages, Statistics New Zealand noted that, "the volume of pure alcohol available per person aged 15 years and over (15+) was unchanged from 2012, at 9.2 litres per person." While anti-alcohol activists try to fuel the perception of crises by citing figures on the total amount of alcoholic beverage that's been available for consumption, it's best to look at statistics on per capita pure alcohol availability.I wish that Monster-Shouting didn't sell papers.
Thomas Lumley reached a similar conclusion.
* The period prior to 1995 uses the discontinued series on total wine; from 1996 onward, I use the revised total wine series. It doesn't make much difference but lets me have a longer time series.