Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ready Their Demise: Has the RTD Swansong Begun?

In early May Lion Nathan NZ announced that they would be scrapping their high alcohol content RTDs, more than two standard drinks per serving, as well as those with energy additives such as Guarana following a similar move by Lion Nathan Australia. These products are the Vault 88 range, McKenna 9% cans and Diesel 8% 440ml cans. Lion Nathan said in their press release for this that one of the reasons for this move was as an active step in combating misuse of alcohol, especially in New Zealand’s under-twenty binge drinking culture.
Tony Ryall, the National Party’s health spokesperson, applauded the move saying that it is good that Lion Nathan have recognised that they hold social responsibility and that “they’re obviously concerned about that impact that this is having and that they’re acting in a way to provide some leadership. They are far in a way not the only provider of these RTDs and it will be interesting to see what the impact it has on the other players.” This is true as Lion Nathan only have a meagre 16% share of New Zealand’s $530 million RTD market; the largest producer in this market is Independent Liquor who control a whopping 65%.
When Lion Nathan made their announcement Independent retorted saying that this move was drawing attention away from beer and wine – which they claimed to be the major cause of binge drinking in New Zealand. This is a somewhat predictable reaction from Independent as they move to protect their RTD market dominance in order to make up for their lack of which in the beer and wine market. When trying to contact a spokesperson for Independent Liquor to elaborate on why they argued that Lion Nathan’s move was shifting the focus away from beer and wine I was sent in circles through their office administration and was eventually informed that they were a company shy of the limelight.
Constable Bill Timms, an officer of the Christchurch Police, says that the move by Lion Nathan is a good idea because it is a step in what he sees as the right direction, “I seriously want to do something about getting rid of them [RTDs] altogether,”. When asked why sees RTDs as such a bad product to have on the market he argues that it introduces people to drinking far too easily. He says that if he gave his under-10 year old a glass of 4% RTD they would not know the difference, hence why these products are also referred to as ‘Alco-pops’ for their similarity in taste to soft drinks, it is because they are so similar to regular fizzy drinks that RTDs are such a big problem with binge drinkers. Timms believes that young people who are given a taste of alcohol for the first time would not immediately binge on beer or wine because they were not used to the taste, but when they taste an RTD they probably would because “it’s just like soft drink,” and that these drinks are a “cheap nasty way of getting alcohol into you”.
The Ministry of Health which despite supporting Lion Nathan’s announcement still believes that more could be done “to address alcohol-related harm caused by all alcohol beverages...such as addressing the marketing and appeal of alcohol to young people”. Marketing of RTD products are, like some beer, purposely aimed at young drinkers despite them still being consumed by drinkers of all ages, for example illustrations for RTD products and promotions commonly depict young drinkers having a good time benefiting from their enjoyment of the product. The reason for targeting young drinkers in particular could be because the young adults are high consumers willing to spend more of their income than older consumers who are more conservative with their money.
When asked about disturbances in the community caused by alcohol Constable Timms believes that they are a result of these drinks “RTDs just seem to go hand in hand with trouble. Around the streets you find Woodstock bourbon cans littered everywhere,” referring to the regular sight of RTD cans scattered on the sides of main roads such as Blenheim and Moorhouse. Tony Ryall agrees with this pointing out that much of society’s social disorder is associated with young drinkers purchasing RTDs from small liquor stores. When asked if they would like to see the drinking-age raised back to twenty both Bill Timms and Tony Ryall said that they would, Timms was also concerned that society has become too liberal and that now it is too hard to cut back.
A possible way of combating binge drinking of RTDs it seems is to increase the tax that consumers pay on them. In Australia the level of tax on RTD drinks has been almost doubled to match the level of spirits, this has resulted in a four pack of Pulse energy RTD going from around $11 Australian too close to $20 Australian. Tony Ryall says that while it would obviously generate a lot of money for the government he is not sure if it would have that great of an effect on consumers. It is possible that instead of purchasing ready-mixed drinks drinkers would instead return to beer or resort to mixing their drinks themselves, possibly worsening the dilemma. If the high tax is to work in Australia, which has a similar youth binge drinking problem as New Zealand, it is always possible that our own government could enforce something similar. The Ministry of Health acknowledges that an increase in tax on RTDs could have public health gains but also believes that an increase in tax on all forms of alcohol, as well as RTDs, can reduce the demand by consumers and holds the view that this would be “the most effective means by which to reduce alcohol-related harm”.
RTD drinks are not just a concern in society; the sheer amount of sugar contained in a single serving is alarming. We have all been warned that a can of coke contains twelve teaspoons of sugar, equivalent to 192 calories, and that we should at most have one per day. In a single can of Woodstock 440ml and cola there is a stunning 220 calories, and in a can of Pulse 300ml there is 277 calories. With both Woodstock and Pulse sold in four packs a drinker would assume that over a single night they would consume all four cans amounting to 880 calories and 1108 calories respectively – about half of the daily recommended calorie intake. The effect of the sheer amount of sugar has both short and long-term consequences. In the short term, any unused calories will stay in one’s body as fat, and in the long term, regular consumption of this level could lead to diabetes. The alternative to drinking RTDs laden with sugar is the sugar-free products, Victoria Robertson of Canterbury University’s health centre however warns against drinking these products as well because of the artificial sweeteners having possibly even more dire consequences on the human body. What is also of note is that the energy additive RTDs that Lion Nathan have scrapped were the only products on the entire market to contain a warning not to consume more than two servings (i.e. cans or bottles), while the leading energy RTD product Pulse contains no such warning on any of it product packaging. While this showed that Lion Nathan appeared to at least have a heightened conscience for its consumers, those warnings came in small font on the top of their cardboard packets. The Ministry of Health points out that providing maximum recommendation labelling on these products may give consumers a false impression that drinking below the recommendation is safe in all cases furthermore advising that more evidence to their effectiveness is required in promoting responsible drinking. Furthermore consumers of these RTDs barely seemed aware of these warnings resulting in sleepless nights and excessive tiredness the following day, what is equally unsettling is that some health professionals who have friends who drink these energy based RTDs were not even aware of this. A recent study also points out that alcoholic beverages containing caffeine and other stimulants, such as Guarana and Taurine, masks the effects of the intoxicating effects of alcohol. With this is mind the sale of alcoholic energy drinks really does begin to seem a little worrying if health professionals, or even retailers in some cases, are not aware of the health warnings that were on the alcoholic energy drinks.
If Lion Nathan has only just become aware of their responsibility to young alcohol consumers by halting production of high alcohol RTDs with energy additives, including caffeine, then the question is how long will it be before other RTD producers alter their products in an effort to be socially conscious? Or will it happen at all? As an under-twenty drinker and an employee of an off-license I wrote this article to point out the risks of RTD drinks. I do admit that when I began drinking when I was younger that I started on RTDs because I did not like the taste of beer and the strength of spirits was too much for me to handle. However, as I matured in my drinking and saw myself and my friends becoming overwhelmed by these drinks’ potency I realised that RTDs did not belong in a drinking culture like ours. On almost any day when I work at my liquor store I regularly serve customers who I know will be binging on the large amounts of RTDs that they purchase, in which Cody’s and Woodstock are the most popular. As a retailer of alcoholic drinks, of which RTDs are a big seller, I support the recent move by Lion Nathan and can only hope that Independent Liquor New Zealand follows suit in order to combat New Zealand’s unfortunate drinking culture.
I finally extend a warning to all my fellow young drinkers out there to be careful in what you drink; beer, shots and RTDs are all good but in moderation and to have a good time, but don’t mess it up getting shit faced and give the rest of us a bad name.

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