21 Aug 2012
A considerable amount of research has suggested the excessive consumption of alcohol is an accepted social norm in New Zealand and Australia, and that young people deliberately drink to reach a level of intoxication.
“Alcohol is Janus-faced,” says Director of AUT’s Gambling and Addictions Research Centre, Professor Max Abbott. “With one hand it deals enjoyment, relaxation, celebration and entertainment, and with the other it deals impaired judgment, high risk behaviour, damaged relationships, ill-health, injury and premature death.”
“Many of these outcomes are largely a consequence of the way in which alcohol alters brain function. It’s been quipped that ‘conscience is that part of the brain which is soluble in alcohol.’ Alcohol has an affinity for the frontal lobes. These brain structures enable humans to anticipate future consequences of our actions, reflect on past experience, be self-critical and regulate current behaviour.”
Short-term, alcohol can reduce anxiety and inhibition, partly by impairing the functioning of this part of the brain. And this is largely its attraction, with these effects passing as alcohol is metabolised. However, many people who drink heavily over a number of years, with those who frequently binge drink prone to developing chronic brain and psychological impairments that persist even if they stop drinking.
With the fiscal cost of excessive alcohol consumption estimated to cost the New Zealand economy between $1.4 and $4 billion every year, it’s a significant problem that is impacting us all, not only the heavy consumers. Adding the social costs on top, this expense could even be as high as $16 billion a year.
What’s the story?
Through her extensive research into the impacts of drugs and alcohol, AUT addictions counselor and researcher Dr Helen Warren says she believes consumption of alcohol is influenced by a number of factors.
“The role of the liquor industry, a genetic vulnerability towards problematic drinking in a section of our community and the greater social context all play their part in the excessive consumption of alcohol that has become the concern of parents, teachers, law and policy makers and treatment centres.”
Changing our drinking behaviour
Policies considered by the government to reduce consumption include a zero tolerance policy for drink driving offenses, increasing minimum legal ages, restricted sales policies and
limits to advertising. Raising the tax on alcohol to raise the price and movements to limit the allowable alcohol content in some drinks that are popular with many young drinkers, such as ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs), have often been the core of government policies.
A recent experiment by AUT researchers was carried out to find out if, in fact, these proposed government changes will have any impact. Conducted in both Australia and New Zealand, the experiment, led by Associate Professor of retailing Andrew Parsons of AUT Business School, examined the effects of price changes and alcohol content changes on behavioural intention.
The results were analysed as part of the thesis of AUT business masters student Nicola Stephenson. They revealed that social norms are stronger than price effects in both countries – even when the price was increased by as much as 25 per cent, the students sampled in both countries would still not change their buying behaviour. The researchers also found that the alcohol content of beverages has a significant pull on their popularity in New Zealand. These findings therefore contradict government emphasis on fiscal and regulatory approaches to modifying purchasing choices. Parsons suggests the government cannot simply rely on fiscally manipulated prices or product restrictions.
“Instead, more programmatic approaches like those used in anti-smoking have been shown to be more effective social interventions,” he says.
“The influence of perceived social norms on consumer behaviour around drinking far outweighs the influence of price and alcohol content variations.” Professor Abbott also believes that changing social attitudes would have a bigger impact on reducing alcohol-related problems in New Zealand.
“Measures such as media and education campaigns, age restrictions, enforcement of current laws and regulations, further restraints on alcohol marketing and advertising, mobilising communities to design and implement programmes to reduce underage drinking, expanding effective treatment services and evaluating the effectiveness of interventions are all important.
“But changes in social attitudes and norms are known to have a significant impact. Countries that have chosen to run a combination of campaigns to change attitudes with legal and other measures have been most effective.”
For Dr Warren, a combined intervention or strategy is likely to make the most significant impact on the drinking culture of New Zealanders.
“Price control and alcohol content are just part of the solution. Part of the programmatic approach Dr Parsons’ research addresses needs to de-normalise alcohol consumption as an integral element of the fabric of our society and social interaction.
“As a society we apply a double standard to alcohol consumption: on the one hand we are quick to individualise problem drinking in the young and on the other we accept little or no collective responsibility for the general environment in which this pattern of alcohol consumption develops (including a high level of tolerance for drunkenness).
“Only by having a mix of regulatory measures and social norms working together will we push behaviour in the desired direction of change.”