Monday 18 March 2013

More on the alcohol crisis

Joanna Mathers reports in the New Zealand Herald that beer consumption has more than halved since 1973: from 181 litres per adult to 79 last year; she says total beer consumption is the lowest it's been since the Second World War.

Alas, I'm not able to find Stats NZ data giving total alcohol consumption per capita going back that far - the series giving pure-alcohol equivalents goes back to 1986. But I've been able to find a now-discontinued series giving volume of beer, wine and spirits available for consumption, per head, from 1935 to 1981. The series is ALC006AA, if you're searching.

It's a bit tough to get a per capita alcohol consumption measure out of this. First, I have no clue what the denominator is in "per head". If it's per person over the age of 20, because that was the alcohol purchase age, then the figures count towards adult consumption all underaged consumption and consequently overstates adult consumption. If it's per capita, then it allocates some adult consumption to infants and understates adult consumption.

Further, I don't know the average alcohol content of the beer and wine consumed. We can make some assumptions there though. I'll assume that beer is 5% alcohol by volume, that wine is 14% alcohol by volume. The series notes tell us that spirits are measured in proof litres, so that helps.

For the period 1986 onwards,* I use the alcohol available for consumption per person aged 18+ measure from Statistics New Zealand: since the change in the alcohol purchase age didn't seem to change consumption among those aged 18-20, I expect this is about the right measure. But, if the pre-1981 data used 20+ as denominator, the later series is slightly understated relative to the former.**

Under those assumptions, this is what we get.

I'm not sure I believe the numbers pre-1950. But, what crisis New Zealand had with alcohol consumption seems to have taken place in the 1980s through about 1992. From 2000 onward, we're where we were in the mid-to-late 1970s. I'm not sure how far back in time the crisis-shouters want to push us.

Note that income matters a lot too: we're richer than we used to be, so we can afford more cars, bigger houses, and more and better booze. I expect that some of the leveling-off in total consumption coincides with the rise of craft brewing and shifts towards drinking less but better beer.

If there is a current crisis, it isn't in the aggregate consumption data unless you want to say we've been in a crisis since the 1970s. It's hard to find evidence of any current crisis in other data:

I'm glad that the Herald is reporting on the drop in beer consumption. Putting it in the context of recently flat aggregate alcohol consumption would have made it clearer that the drop is partially due to aggregate consumption drops since the early 80s, and partially due to category shifts to other beverages. 

* The alcohol per capita series ALC005AA only starts in 1986.

** Go and play in Infoshare [get "Industry Sectors", then ALC] and compare the 18+ and 20+ series; they're not far off from each other. In an earlier post, I used 15+ because that's the measure used in some international comparisons and I was noting international comparisons.


  1. Prior to the 1990s most beer in NZ was 4%

  2. Really interesting. Also think that in the 1970s you have young people making up a larger % of population, they (me) are now aging and we drink a bit less in or mature years. There is also a period when alcohol drinking laws because more liberal and I am sure we all wanted to drink more at the time - for no better reason than we could. When I was 21 it was very rare for a women to go to a hotel. Lots has changed. BTW - who is having the crisis?

  3. I don't know the by-gender history. If that story is right, then much of the aggregate rise through the early 80s could have been women moving to the male equilibrium.

  4. "...what crisis New Zealand had with alcohol consumption seems to have taken place in the 1980s through about 1992. From 2000 onward, we're where we were in the mid-to-late 1970s."

    That trend seems to follow the number of homicides very closely. I can't find a graph online, but here's Te Ara (

    "Rates of reported murder and manslaughter... reached a peak of over 90 per year between 1990 and 1992. After 2000, reported homicides stabilised at an average of 66 per year.

    "Before the 1970s about 10 murders a year were reported to the police. Numbers of reported murders rose in the 1970s and 1980s, with an average of 65 a year between 1985 and 1992. Reported murders have been stable since 2000, averaging 54 a year."