MARK METHERELL August 29, 2012
IN THE face of calls for measures to counter grog abuse, the alcohol industry is financing an academic critique of "nanny state" measures, importing a New Zealand economist who challenges a $15 billion estimate of the annual cost of alcohol abuse in Australia.
The move comes as an alcohol research group today releases research showing that alcohol is far more affordable today than it was 30 years ago, to back its calls for heavier taxes on cheap alcohol.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), commissioned the Australia Institute study which found that incomes have risen at three times the rate of alcohol prices in the past 30 years and that the cheapest wine now cost less than bottled water.
The NZ economist, Eric Crampton, yesterday told an alcohol industry-sponsored briefing in Canberra that a widely-cited Australian study had relied on incorrect economic arguments to support "paternalistic" policy to combat excessive drinking.
Dr Crampton, a senior lecturer in economics at Canterbury University, has had a paper published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, stating that only a fifth of the social costs of alcohol abuse asserted by the Australian study could be "plausibly counted".
He said many of the costs totalling $15 billion in that study - covering elements such as household, healthcare, productivity and traffic accidents costs - were inadmissable in a standard economic framework.
"My worry has been that while the $15 billion is economically meaningless, it is policy meaningful. If people expect this is a cost to ... their back pocket because of other people's behaviour, that increases the demand for certain types of policy," Dr Crampton told a lunch for journalists hosted by the National Alcohol Beverage Industry Council.
Questioned about his independence given his research and visit was financed by the alcohol industry, Dr Crampton said he was subject to his univdersity's strict controls to ensure academic freedom.
"I expect that if the paper had provided alternative conclusions they would not have invited me to this."
The chief executive of FARE, Michael Thorn, said the study Dr Crampton questioned, by Australian academics David Collins and Helen Lapsley, was performed in accordance with the approach laid down by the World Health Organization.
"If the alcohol industry and Crampton are so hell-bent on attacking existing cost-of-illness studies, then why don't they simply propose a new total cost of alcohol-related harms. We can then see their conclusions and test how sound their methodology is," Mr Thorn said.
Mr Gordon Broderick, executive director of the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, said the briefing yesterday was "not part of a campaign" by the alcohol beverage industry council. The council had taken advantage of Dr Crampton's visit to Australia to address a liquor stores conference on the Gold Coast, to invite him to the Canberra briefing.