Posted by: thebeereditor | October 15, 2010

Very Cheap Drinking in New Zealand: Compared to What, and Why?

This morning a headline caught my eye as I perused the news over breakfast: “Booze now cheaper than bottled water“. I always read these articles, usually with my left eyebrow cocked slightly higher than the right. They always have a sensational title, never divulge their method, and always come with an overt social agenda. For some reason this particular article prompted me to go one step further than the eyebrow-cock and post this.

Starting with the first sentence:

Alcohol is now so cheap that it costs less per drink than bottled water and only slightly more than milk, new research shows.

Wow. Something must be done about this. Society as we know it is in peril. Alcohol [alcoholic beverages] cheaper than bottled water? Next time I jump on my bike, instead of reaching for a bottle of water, I’ll be putting a bottle of gin in my bottle cage. Because they are substitutes right? That’s why we are comparing them right? And just how did alcoholic beverages get so cheap, that they are now less expensive than a product that is essentially free before packaging? The same product we can all access through our cold tap for free? Oh, I see, you are using for comparison a product that is essentially a rip-off in the first place. That’ll spice up the headline.

On we go:

Public Health Associate Professor Nick Wilson and fellow researcher Fiona Gunasekara found cask wine readily for sale at 62 cents per standard drink, beer at 64c and bottled wine at 65c.

That was cheaper than bottled water – at 67 cents per 250ml – and not much more than a 250ml glass of milk, at 43 cents.

Okay, fair enough, you just can’t argue with those figures. These figures were compiled by researchers. And published in a medical journal. Who could argue? Well, I’ll try.

Normally my frustration in these types of stories is that they are distributed far and wide, yet the source article is published in a journal fairly inaccessible to the average newspaper reader. On this occasion I hunted down the source article: Very cheap drinking in New Zealand: some alcohol is more affordable than bottled water and nearly as cheap as milk, published in Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 15-October-2010, Vol 123 No 1324. Now we can see just how scientific this study is.

I found their method to produce misleading results (and of course that sensational headline) by:

  1. using average retail prices for milk and water to compare against lowest discounted prices for alcoholic products.
  2. using a small package size for water (750mL) against large package sizes for alcoholic products (2 x 1L spirits, 3L wine, 3.96L beer).

Why would one seek out the cheapest national prices for one variable and compare them to the average retail price of another? Would that not skew the data? Why would you choose to compare a large package size against a small package size? Would this inflate the per-unit price of one and minimise the per-unit price of the other? Would that not skew the data further?

Funnily enough, the mainstream media have already picked up on these flaws. One News ran a quick report comparing products available at a single retail outlet. This time picking like-for-like (lowest per-unit price of all products), the results showed beer coming in at over five times the cost of the water, and wine three times.

In fact the article reads more like a letter-to-the-editor with a flimsily constructed argument built in order to support some preheld views. It is well worth a read if you can, at least for the giggle factor, certainly not for the scientific content.

But of course the article has had its desired effect. Why let the facts get in the way of a good headline?