Published in Swedish in Nordisk Alkohol- & Narkotikatidskrift 21:345-349, 2004.
PATCHING TOGETHER A POLICY STUDY
Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs
An irony is built into the substantial tradition of study of the effects of Nordic alcohol policies, as we remarked in reviewing the tradition: “in the majority of studies, testing and demonstrating the effectiveness of the control measures has been possible because the particular control measure was being abandoned” (Olsson, Ólafsdóttir & Room, 2002:7).
What from the point of view of alcohol policy may be extremely problematic is thus from the point of view of research a great opportunity. First, there is no more direct way to study the effects of policies than to study what happens when they change. This is particularly the case when not every comparable location changes at once, and there is the chance to use stable locations as control sites. Second, such policy changes also offer an unusual chance to study, in the context of ordinary life, changes and causal connections at the individual level. If the policy change does have a measurable effect, whose behaviour is changed more – young or old, men or women, heavier drinkers or lighter, those who drink in public or those who drink at home? What goes along with the changes in the amount or pattern of drinking at the individual level? For instance, are there connected changes in the occurrence of problems in the family from drinking? Is there a measurable impact on potentially connected behaviours such as smoking or gambling?
The primary emphasis in Nordic alcohol policy research has been on the first of these frames, the effect of policy changes on the total population, and it was partly with the aim of redressing the balance with an emphasis on the second -- looking for differential effects in subgroups of the population -- that a collaborative Nordic group of researchers had reviewed and in some instances reanalyzed studies in the Nordic alcohol policy research tradition (Room, 2002), in a study financed by the Swedish Council for Social Research (SFR; now Forskningsrådet för Arbetsliv och Socialvetenskap, FAS) in 2000-2002.
When the Danish government
announced that it would be reducing its spirits taxes by 45% on 1 October,
2003, then, there was a group of researchers primed to regard this as an
opportunity to study effects not only at a population level, with aggregate
data such as monopoly store sales statistics and mortality, but also at the
individual level with population surveys.
We knew also that another change would be happening -- the final
increase in cross-border traveler’s allowances required of
The initial planning for the
To study changes at the individual level,
we needed to collect longitudinal data, where the same respondents are followed
over time. Such follow-up data lay
outside the scope of the Monitoring survey or the plans at the time for
The immediate problem for
the nascent study was to fund the “before” data collection in
The decision was made to
write a proposal in May, 2003 to the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism (NIAAA) for further funds to support the study. By this time, it had become likely that
Presuming the NIAAA money
comes through, a fully viable project has thus been mounted. It is actually the first collaborative
cross-Nordic alcohol policy impact study with coordinated data collection in
more than one country – all previous studies have been of a single
country. But the process of mounting it
revealed a number of weaknesses in Nordic research funding for studies of the
effects of policy changes. Research
council funds operate on too long a turnaround time to provide resources for
collecting “before” data, unless changes are announced long ahead. The amount of money available from national
or Nordic research council funds is insufficient for fieldwork for a
substantial study collecting primary data.
Funds directly from ministries were not available at the time of the
project’s first two data collections. At
the moment, the European Union is no help at all in terms of funding such
policy or social research. The outside funds which made the project a full
study have thus had to be attracted from the
If Nordic alcohol and drug policymakers are serious about basing their policies on evidence, there is a need to put more resources into policy-relevant research. In principle, funding the cost of an evaluation study should be built into decisions to change social policy.
There are further
opportunities to be seized. On
Harper, T. (2003) Smoking and gambling: a trance inducing ritual. Tobacco Control 12:231-233.
Heeb, J.-L., Gmel, G., Zurbrügg, C., Kuo, M., & Rehm, J. (2003). Changes in alcohol consumption following a
reduction in the price of spirits: a natural experiment in
Holder, H.D., ed.
Kuo, M., Heeb,
J.-L., Gmel, G., & Rehm, J. (2003).
Does price matter? The effect of
decreased price on spirits consumption in
Leifman, H. & Gustafsson, N.-K. (2003) En skål för det nya milleniet: en studie av svenska folkets alkoholkonsumtionen i början av 2000-talet. Stockholm: SoRAD, Forskningsrapport nr. 11. http://www.sorad.su.se/alkrapp.pdf
M., Rehm, J., Heeb, J.-L., & Gmel, G. (2004). Decreased taxation, spirits consumption and
alcohol-related problems in
Ólafsdóttir, H. & Room, R. (2002) Introduction: Nordic traditions of
studying the impact of alcohol policies. In: Room, R., ed., The Effects of Nordic Alcohol Policies: What
Happens to Drinking and Harm When Alcohol Policies Change? pp. 5-16.
R., ed. (2002) The Effects of Nordic
Alcohol Policies: What Happens to Drinking and Harm When Alcohol Policies