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A danger lurking in wait for the holiday season

A danger lurking in wait for the holiday season – UC economics lecturer

November 23, 2012

There's a danger lurking in wait for us this holiday season, a University of Canterbury (UC) senior economics lecturer Dr Eric Crampton said today.

As people head for the bach and beaches, they will hear many warnings about holiday drinking, he said.

``But nobody warns us about the warnings. And, there's danger in that as well, since some of the warnings are either false or badly overstated,’’ he said.

Dr Crampton will be delivering a public lecture on campus next Wednesday on the issues of alcohol and what if alcohol's social costs were overstated.

He will discuss his work comparing social costs, as measured in the public health literature, with more standard economic notions of cost.

Recent figures alleging a $4.8 billion social cost of alcohol, when re-examined using more standard method, found that only about a fifth of that figure would properly count.

People enjoy moderate drinking; policy focused exclusively on curbing the harms experienced by heavy drinkers while ignoring moderate drinkers’ enjoyment which risks doing more harm than good.

Dr Crampton will discuss the influence of bad statistics around alcohol on the Law Commission’s review and on legislation before noting some of the other, less publicised, findings around alcohol and moderate drinking.

``It is hard to open the paper without finding dire warnings about alcohol's costs to the country. But how often do we hear that drinkers earn more than non-drinkers? Or that light drinkers have lower mortality risk than non-drinkers? Or that light-to-moderate drinking predicts better aging outcomes? Or, that light drinking during pregnancy really does not seem associated with adverse outcomes?

``Should we really count the $700 million that heavier drinkers spent on their own alcohol as being a cost to the country?

``We often see statistics cited showing the increase in per capita alcohol consumption since 1997: from 1997 to 2011, it increased by 16 percent. But the Statistics New Zealand series from which those figures are drawn do go back to 1986, before liberalisation of New Zealand’s alcohol laws.

``Alcohol consumption dropped by more than a third from 1986 to 1997; we remain well below the consumption levels that prevailed prior to 1992. Problem drinking among youths, on the whole, is no worse now than it was prior to the alcohol purchase age being reduced to 18. There really seems little basis for claims that New Zealand faces worse outcomes around alcohol now than it did 20 years ago.

While there were serious and real harms associated with heavy drinking, moderate drinkers should use common sense this holiday season, relax, and enjoy themselves, Dr Crampton said.

Drinking up to two standard drinks per day was associated with reasonable health benefits and drinking up to four standard drinks per day was no worse than abstinence in aggregate health outcomes, he said.


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