The Evidence For Real Action on Alcohol

The public response to our alcohol policy has been overwhelmingly positive, with the Newshub poll showing 70% support amongst the public for raising the drinking age. This is pretty consistent with previous polls, and our own deliberative democracy process with our members where (once they were informed) only 17% wanted no change to the current laws.

Nevertheless there is always opposition to change, and we’ve had a lot of questions about the evidence behind the policy. This blog takes you through our reasoning. 

One study is not the evidence base

A few people have sent us particular studies and asked if we have taken them into account. The answer is yes and no. Yes, we have taken them into account, and no, we have not read every study about alcohol in formulating this policy.

The fact is that this work has already been done for us in the form of expert meta-analyses. These meta analyses bring together all the relevant studies on the issues to get a sense of the full evidence base. Meta analyses are therefore the highest form of evidence available and carry more weight than individual studies.

It is important to look at all the evidence in a contentious area, for one main reason. It is pretty easy for alcohol companies to fund a whole bunch of studies on these issues. One of them is bound to turn up a result that is different from the evidence base. If we determined policy based on the fact that one study finds a different result, we would never do anything. Science is very rarely 100% conclusive, and we need to act on the best information we have.

In recent years there have been three major meta analyses on the issue of alcohol that we drew on. In 2005 the Drug Foundation launched their Eight Point Plan, based on a wide body of research. In 2010 the Law Commission followed this up with an incredibly thorough report Alcohol in our Lives. But this is just the local evidence – in 2003 and 2010 a group of addiction scientists brought together the body of knowledge on alcohol in Alcohol – No Ordinary Commodity. All these reports come to the same conclusion on the best ways to reduce alcohol harm.

What has the strongest evidence for reducing harm?

Remember this policy is about reducing the $6b harm caused by alcohol every year through accidents, violence, sexual assault and the resulting health impacts. Two thirds of injuries in A&E on the weekend are alcohol related. Overseas evidence shows that with good policies we can reduce those figures by up to half.

In the face of the stark problems caused by alcohol, the response from establishment parties has been typically limp:

I think now I'd probably say leave it where it is," Mr Little said. "Let's not underestimate what alcohol is capable of doing, but I think there are other ways we can control that and mitigate the harm…

… Prime Minister Bill English doesn't think [changing the age is] necessary. Green MP Eugenie Sage says if people can go to war at 18, then they should be allowed to drink.

So National says things are fine, Labour says there are other ways to reduce harm and the Greens side step the issue completely. Drug Foundation head Ross Bell has pointed out their hypocrisy:

We cannot afford to have policy decided by MPs enamoured by a corporate box at the rugby, with plenty of the sponsor’s product on tap.

What does the evidence say?

The top four ways of reducing harm, according to the evidence base set out above, are increasing price, raising the drinking age, allowing local communities to control alcohol availability and investing more in alcohol treatment. TOP’s policy does all four things.

The other things that the evidence shows could make a difference are lowering alcohol limits for drink driving and regulating advertising and sponsorship. The Government lowered blood alcohol limits in 2014, and the impact of this needs to be reviewed. The Green Party is pushing for banning of advertising and sponsorship, which sits well with their anti-corporate stance generally. Unfortunately of all the 6 solutions put forward, it has the weakest evidence base behind it according to No Ordinary Commodity.

The Opportunities Party appears – yet again – to be the only political party taking this issue seriously. We want to take real action to reduce the harm from alcohol on our society.