Imposing minimum prices for alcohol is likely to help some people who are dependent on it to cut down their drinking, say the authors of a new study.
And there is little evidence that not being able to afford a drink would drive them to meths or crime, they say in today's New Zealand Medical Journal. "Fears of such behaviours are not valid reasons for rejecting a minimum pricing regime."
The Government last year decided not to set minimum prices, saying there was no compelling evidence it was "the correct approach". It could cause harms, such as encouraging some to take other drugs and increasing illicit sales from potentially risky home brewing and distilling.
This decision followed a Justice Ministry analysis of the potential effects of imposing minimum prices of between $1 and $1.20 a standard drink. In the new study, of 115 alcohol-dependent people receiving medical detoxification treatment in Auckland, 13 per cent said that if their usual drink became unaffordable, they would reduce their drinking substantially so they could keep consuming their usual drink.
The survey participants had drunk, on average, the equivalent of three bottles of wine a day.
Seventy-six of the participants had previously experienced having no money to buy a drink and used one or more strategies, including forgoing essentials (41 per cent), borrowing alcohol (36 per cent), going without alcohol (25 per cent), using illicit drugs (17 per cent), prescription drugs (13 per cent), stealing alcohol (12 per cent) and drinking a "non-beverage alcohol" such as methylated spirits (3 per cent).
"Whilst the most common strategies are unsustainable for long, they sit in stark contrast to the perception of the general public and other authors, who have expressed concern about increased criminal activity or use of harmful substitutes," Dr Carolyn Falkner, of Community Alcohol and Drug Services, and her co-researchers say in the journal.
The study indicates dependent drinkers buy a lot of cheap alcohol and would be financially affected by an increase in the prices charged for budget alcohol.
"Any potential impacts would be most significant in the subset currently buying the cheapest alcohol, which is also the group using the most alcohol, suggesting that such a regime may be an important harm-minimisation strategy."
A spokesman for Justice Minister Amy Adams said she was unavailable for comment at short notice.
Canadian researcher Tim Stockwell says there is emerging evidence of public health benefits in Canada from minimum pricing.
Alcohol researcher Professor Jennie Connor, of Otago University, told the Science Media Centre: "The importance of this [Falkner] paper is that it consults the very people who will be most affected by minimum pricing and is reasonably reassuring that they will not be unduly harmed or turned into criminals if such a policy was introduced."
• Survey of 115 detox patients who were dependent on alcohol
• On average they had been consuming 24 standard drinks a day, the equivalent of 3 bottles of wine
When asked if their preferred drink became too expensive:
• 86% said they would switch to a cheaper drink and/or combine their usual drink with something cheaper
• 13% said they would reduce drinking substantially, to continue with their usual drink