How well do alcohol policies work?

PROFESSOR SALLY CASSWELL - Co-director, SHORE and Whāriki Research Centre

Alcohol use has a major impact on society, here and overseas. Better understanding of patterns of consumption can lead to more effective alcohol control policies.

Alcohol consumption and related harm is a worldwide issue. In New Zealand, nearly half of all alcohol is consumed in heavy drinking occasions, with men consuming more than eight drinks and women six. Alcohol use causes hundreds of deaths each year, through vehicle accidents and diseases including cancers, and plays a role in a large number of criminal offences: it is estimated that half of all violent crimes are related to alcohol use.

In reaction to this, governments implement policies surrounding the consumption, sale and pricing of alcohol. But how well do these work, and what are their impacts? What changes could be made to improve the effectiveness of alcohol policy in different alcohol markets?

The International Alcohol Control Study is an innovative research project that aims to measure the impacts of alcohol control policies internationally. The study began in 2011 and now involves 12 countries. The New Zealand arm, and the international coordination of the study, are being carried out by researchers at Massey University’s Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (SHORE) research centre, a multidisciplinary group undertaking policy and community research and evaluation on a variety of health and social topics.

The team is led by Professor Sally Casswell, in partnership with Māori research group Te Rōpū Whāriki. Professor Casswell’s research interests are in social and public health policy, particularly in relation to alcohol and other drugs, with a particular interest in the development and implementation of healthy public policy at the community level. She is also interested in the evaluation of these initiatives, including strategies to reduce the exposure of young people to alcohol marketing.


Two parts to international study

The International Alcohol Control Study has two parts. The first is a longitudinal survey, which assesses behavioural change over time among drinkers in different countries, and enables comparisons between countries to be made.

The survey measures alcohol consumption, perceptions of alcohol affordability, availability, enforcement and support for alcohol policy. An innovative part of the survey is the inclusion of questions about behaviours and attitudes which can be affected by policy changes and which mediate consumption. These include prices paid, time and place of purchase, and exposure to and resonance of marketing.

The second research tool, the Alcohol Environment Protocol, monitors the alcohol environment in each country. The protocol utilises administrative and commercial data, interviews and observational studies to assess the implementation of effective alcohol control policies in the areas of alcohol availability, pricing and taxation, social supply of alcohol, marketing and drink-driving enforcement.

We need to move, as the tobacco control movement has, into an international health regulatory framework.


Significance of time of purchase

A number of research papers have been published from the study so far. In one of these, Professor Casswell and her colleagues analysed data from the surveyed drinkers to find out the relationship between how much they drank, how much they paid for it and what time they bought alcohol. The results showed that drinkers paying low prices or buying later were more likely to consume six or more drinks. Drinkers purchasing alcohol at later times were also more likely to be daily drinkers. These data were made available to policy-makers in New Zealand considering restrictions on trading hours.

In another study, Professor Casswell’s team investigated the relationship between alcohol consumption, age, education and income, and whether these relationships were mediated by policy-related behaviour. They measured how much people drank, how often, their gender, age, years of education, personal income, prices paid for the alcohol, time of purchase and the subjects’ liking for alcohol advertisements.

The results showed again that those who bought alcohol later (more often younger people and males) drank larger amounts, more often. Lower prices (which also attracted younger people and those less well educated) also had an impact on how much people drank. Those who liked alcohol advertisements (again, younger people and males) also tended to drink larger amounts, more often. Those with higher incomes drank larger amounts on premise and more frequently, but were less impacted by price and time of purchase.

Overall, the results indicated that changing alcohol policy—through changes to pricing, hours of availability and advertising—could potentially reduce heavier drinking by young people and those less well educated.

“It’s about collecting detailed evidence about what can we do to make changes and using this to inform policy debate,” Professor Casswell says. “We’ve got a lot of evidence in broad terms already—we know it’s basically about controlling the availability, making sure that alcohol is not too affordable though taxation, and marketing.

“Marketing is hugely important all around the world. It’s increasing the amount that young people drink, and starting them drinking earlier, which is really important in terms of lifetime problems. It needs to be regulated at the national level in New Zealand, but we also need movement at the international level. We need to move, as the tobacco control movement has, into an international health regulatory framework.”

Project details


  • Health Promotion Agency (HPA)
  • Health Research Council
  • The IAC study has received significant support from the International Development Research Council, Canada, and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies

Dates Ongoing since 2010