THE alcohol industry is responding to stricter controls on drinking by using a New Zealand economist to challenge estimates that abuse is costing the nation $15 billion a year.
The move comes as a research group advocating heavier taxes today releases research showing alcohol is far more affordable today than it was 30 years ago.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education commissioned the Australia Institute study, which found incomes have risen at three times the rate of alcohol prices in the past 30 years and that the cheapest wine now costs less than bottled water.
The NZ economist Eric Crampton said yesterday that a widely cited Australian study had relied on incorrect economic arguments to support ''paternalistic'' policies to combat excessive drinking.
Dr Crampton, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Canterbury, 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 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 briefing in Canberra 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 university's strict controls to ensure academic freedom.
The chief executive of FARE, Michael Thorn, said the study Dr Crampton questioned was in accordance with the approach laid down by the World Health Organisation.
He challenged the alcohol industry and Dr Crampton to generate a new estimate of the cost of alcohol abuse.