More on the alcohol crisis

By Eric Crampton 19/03/2013


Joanna Mathers reports in the New Zealand Herald that beer consumption has more than halved since 1973: from 181 litres per adult to 79 last year; she says total beer consumption is the lowest it’s been since the Second World War.

Alas, I’m not able to find Stats NZ data giving total alcohol consumption per capita going back that far – the series giving pure-alcohol equivalents goes back to 1986. But I’ve been able to find a now-discontinued series giving volume of beer, wine and spirits available for consumption, per head, from 1935 to 1981. The series is ALC006AA, if you’re searching.

It’s a bit tough to get a per capita alcohol consumption measure out of this. First, I have no clue what the denominator is in “per head”. If it’s per person over the age of 20, because that was the alcohol purchase age, then the figures count towards adult consumption all underaged consumption and consequently overstates adult consumption. If it’s per capita, then it allocates some adult consumption to infants and understates adult consumption.

Further, I don’t know the average alcohol content of the beer and wine consumed. We can make some assumptions there though. I’ll assume that beer is 5% alcohol by volume, that wine is 14% alcohol by volume. The series notes tell us that spirits are measured in proof litres, so that helps.

For the period 1986 onwards,* I use the alcohol available for consumption per person aged 18+ measure from Statistics New Zealand: since the change in the alcohol purchase age didn’t seem to change consumption among those aged 18-20, I expect this is about the right measure. But, if the pre-1981 data used 20+ as denominator, the later series is slightly understated relative to the former.**

Under those assumptions, this is what we get.***

I’m not sure I believe the numbers pre-1950. I’d love to have some by-gender figures here, because I’d expect a reasonable amount of the aggregate rise from 1950 to 1980 came as women joined men at the bar. What crisis New Zealand had with alcohol consumption seems to have taken place in the 1980s through about 1992. From 2000 onward, we’re where we were in the mid-to-late 1970s. I’m not sure how far back in time the crisis-shouters want to push us.

Note that income matters a lot too: we’re richer than we used to be, so we can afford more cars, bigger houses, and more and better booze. I expect that some of the leveling-off in total consumption coincides with the rise of craft brewing and shifts towards drinking less but better beer.

If there is a current crisis, it isn’t in the aggregate consumption data unless you want to say we’ve been in a crisis since the 1970s. It’s hard to find evidence of any current crisis in other data:

I’m glad that the Herald is reporting on the drop in beer consumption. Putting it in the context of recently flat aggregate alcohol consumption would have made it clearer that the drop is partially due to aggregate consumption drops since the early 80s, and partially due to category shifts to other beverages. 

* The alcohol per capita series ALC005AA only starts in 1986. Oh: and the standard disclaimer is here.

** Go and play in Infoshare [get “Industry Sectors”, then ALC] and compare the 18+ and 20+ series; they’re not far off from each other. In an earlier post, I used 15+ because that’s the measure used in some international comparisons and I was noting international comparisons.

*** Interactive version of the chart is up at the original post at Offsetting; I can’t get scripts to work in WordPress here.


0 Responses to “More on the alcohol crisis”

  • Have you thought about a Miron and Zwiebel type approach of using cirrhosis deaths / drunkenness arrests to go further back in time?

    The _Statistics of New Zealand_ volumes that go back to the late nineteenth century estimate beer, wine and spirits for home consumption. Another Honours project!

    • I hadn’t thought of doing that here; Miron and Zwiebel only did that, I’d thought, because there wasn’t reliable consumption data during the period of prohibition. I’m not sure whether NZ’s early consumption data is much less reliable than its early cirrhosis data, but it could be worth checking out.

      I’m now a bit more interested in getting the by-gender data. If much of the run-up in the 50s-80s was because women went from being shunned to being accepted at the bar, that’s a really different story from everyone just drinking a lot more.