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Britain still refusing to drink itself to death – despite media insisting it is

A few weeks ago various shitty newspapers picked up on the shocking rise in binge drinking among women.  Curiously, none of them seem to have picked up on the latter clarification that this isn’t actually true.

Last time I discussed ONS figures on drinking, I pointed out that in 2006 the number of units in a glass of wine was changed to reflect the growing trend to larger glasses.  I had no problem with this change in calculation because it’s true that on average we’re drinking from larger glasses, so the definition of ‘a glass’ of wine needs to keep pace with this.

But it did create an apparent huge one-off jump in alcohol consumption, particularly among women.  However, this was NOT an increase in drinking – it was a change in methodology.  It meant that the figures in the years before the recalculation should probably have been higher, and meant that any figures coming after the change could not be compared directly to those before the recalculation to give any kind of accurate trend. At the time, the ONS said: ““It should be noted, however, that changing the way in which alcohol consumption estimates are derived [in 2006] does not in itself reflect a real change in drinking among the adult population.”

Get that?  That’s the ONS saying it – the people who compile the figures.

Consumption was on a downward trend before this recalculation.  After the jump caused by the change in calculation, it resumed this downward trend.  In other words – let me spell this out as clearly as I can, because it seems to be a difficult thing to understand – THE OFFICIAL ONS FIGURES SHOW THAT ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION/BINGE DRINKING IS IN LONG TERM DECLINE.

So why in March 2011 does the ONS then issue a press release that states: “The percentage of females consuming more than the weekly recommended units of alcohol has increased by a fifth since 1998”?

Is this true? Or did they forget the change in their own methodology that they themselves were previously so keen to point out, in order to ensure people read the figures correctly?

The answer is: yes, they forgot to take account of their own methodology change, which led to them releasing a false story about alcohol consumption to an anti-alcohol national press!

They did at least have the decency to point this out, reissuing the press release with a clarification on the front page that reads:

Corrections have been made to reported trends in alcohol consumption in this article, published on 31 March 2011. The errors are unrelated to estimates of output, inputs and productivity.
In Annex C, figure C.5 illustrated trends in alcohol consumption from 1998 to 2009, using estimates from the General Lifestyle Survey (ONS 2010), but omitted references to a change in the estimation methodology in 2006. The change means that trends over the whole period do not necessarily reflect changes in drinking habits.
Accordingly, explanatory footnotes have been added to figure C.5 and paragraphs C.2.7 to C.2.10 in Annex C. References to alcohol consumption in the main article (Table 4.2) and the News Release have also been amended.
ONS apologises for any inconvenience caused.

According to the Liberal Conspiracy blog, the ONS has apologised to the Portman Group for the error.

According to the Straight Statistics blog, which helpfully found this little clarification for us, the Portman Group wrote to the Daily Mail and pointed out this error, but the Mail has refused to print this correction to a factually inaccurate story they ran, and is no longer accepting comments on the online version.

I wonder why?

The Telegraph story is also still up online and uncorrected.

A special prize goes to anyone who can find a single UK media outlet clarifying the story with the correct data.

Thanks to Jeff Pickthall and to Dave Boyle for alerting me to this gem.



scott murray

I cant believe they keep on printing out things like this, even after they find out this information is incorrect they refuse to print a retraction. I don't know who is worse the company who compiles the figures and then falsifies them to give to the papers or the papers themselves. Ive given up on believing papers on subjects such as these, cheers for showing some truth behind this subject.

Sid Boggle

ONS = MiniPlenty. Papers courtesy of MiniTrue.

All proprietors to be required to eat their own body weight in shit for every bogus government press release they recycle as 'news'. Said penalty to double for every day after a 'clarification' is issued, that they don't print said 'clarification'.

We don't need a referendum of how we vote. We need one on WHY! Twats.

Dr Helpmann

What is the conspiracy that you are inferring? A prohibitionist one maybe or an anti-wine one, even (I'm thinking more of the Mail's article) a sexist one. I can't imagine broadsheet journo's campaigning for a decrease in wine consumption. Even though the statistical inference is clearly wrong, it is probably correct to say that people are consuming more and stronger wine at home in large measures simply because it is cheap, well marketed, easily available and seen as a lifestyle choice. Maybe we should be quietly pleased that this is one of the rare occasions that beer or cider doesn't get the blame for the apparently overflowing NHS wards. The articles just seem more like lazy journalism than conspiracy. Lift a headline from a press release, throw in some conjecture and unrelated quotes and you can head off early for a relaxing drink with your mates down the local wine bar.

Pete Brown

Fair challenge, Doc, but I never suggested a conspiracy – an agenda is probably a fairer word: an anti-alcohol, neo-prohibitionist agenda where alcohol is being made into a new moral panic when the FACTS show that overall alcohol consumption is decreasing, binge drinking is decreasing, alcohol related crime is decreasing, underage drinking is decreasing….

Do a straw poll of random people and I'm pretty sure most will believe the opposite is true. So ask yourself: if the figures show a decline, why do most people believe there's an increase? And why do most newspapers consistently say there is?

Dr Helpmann

Of course the Mail and the Telegraph will pander to an audience who happily sit on the sofa all night supping their £6 bottle of Tesco wine whilst tutting at binge drinking teens on News at Ten. And it gives them call to ask why we fund the NHS when wasters pour WKD down their throats on a Friday night only to have it pumped out for free in the early hours of Saturday. It's the same with crime stats, the press like to scare us to keep us in our place. If what you say is true though it seems reasonable to ask why liver disease is on the increase. That other moral panic, obesity, is a factor but so to must be alcohol consumption. It is just a shame that beer drinkers seem to take most of the rap when it seems to me that spirits, wine and "made-wine" have a bigger part to play in problem drinking i.e. regularly drinking significantly more than your daily and/or weekly recommended units. I'm sure you note that I don't have any evidence for anything I say in the last sentence. I'm not a real doctor and prefer to use my own prejudices whenever I can. But perhaps I'll get a quote in the next newspaper analysis of the issue.


Not sure the stats agree with you that drinking is the UK is in 'long term decline' – long term, from 1940onwards, its way up, with a (questionable) slight downturn over the past few years. That stat is in doubt because of the ONS change in method you refer to. Arguably the new method encourages undereporting by getting people to rate size and strentgh of drink. Can't be sure, and neither are they. Something needs to explain the 70% rise in alcohol related hospital admissions. Also, are Portman group innocent lambs in this? Mangaging a positive profile for alcohol is their business.

Pete Brown

The stats do agree with me. Taking 1940s as a point of comparison is ludicrous and deliberately misleading. I demonstrated this, plus many other deliverTe distortions of NHS, ONS and police data, in a series of posts in Jan 2010.

As for Portman Group, it exists to actively discourage irresponsible alcohol sales and marketing. Nit sure what your problem is with that.

The vast majority of people drink alcohol responsibly – which has been proven in numerous studies to be better for your health than teetotalism.


Stats agree with me too -the slope is going steadily up. Which year would you like to start from? (But look forward to reading more of your stuff).

The Portman group is an industry lobby organisation masquerading as a health education charity. As a JRF study said, it "enables the companies to dispel suspicions, appear caring and satisfy shareholders that it is dealing with the long-term potential threats to its business such as anti-industry campaigns and increased government regulation". Very succesful it is too. While it spends about 2 million on education to sell the idea of sensible drinking, the parent industries spend 600 million plus on marketing and advertising.

No problem with health benefits of occasional drink (though wine seems better than beer), but the industry makes 50% of its profit from the 10% who are alcoholics, and it is increasingly targeting the young with worrying results. Plus the cost to the rest of us from alcohol fuelled illness and crime is huge (1000 billion Europe wide). That my beef.


I responded to an advert in the local press from Wirral NHS Trust which pedalled the usual rubbish about alcohol consumption = certain death. Have I received a reply? You know the answer.


boozwatch – you fail to realise that the reported increase in hospital admissions etc is all part of the agenda.

There is not a 70% increase in people crossing the hospital threshold, there are now just 70% more ailements classed as "alcohol related".

Every sprained wrist from a fall is classed as "alcohol related" if the person with the sprain had been drinking, regardless of whether they still would have fallen down the same rabbit hole stone cold sober.


Sure Geordiemanc, science is an inexact science, but this is an easy one. Alcohol is more likely to make you fall down a rabbit hole than you might otherwise. More booze, more rabbithole related accidents? No agenda needed.

Pete Brown

Boozwatch: I like you because a) you seem to want to make your arguments evidence based, b) you're prepared to come and argue your case on a blog that is mainly read by people in total disagreement with you and c) you make your points in a reasonable, polite, well thought out manner.

But I think you might be digging your own rabbit hole here.

Yes – if you've been drinking, you may be more likely to fall over. But does that mean that every single person who falls over has fallen over because they've had a drink? because that's how it is currently reported. Similarly, drinking heavily does, undoubtedly, make you more likely to suffer liver disease. But the stats I was able to find suggest that only 26% of liver disease is drink related. And yet, the NHS counts EVERY SINGLE liver disease complaint as being alcohol related. My wife's uncle died of cirrhosis despite being a strict baptist who never drank one single drop of alcohol in his life. And yet, according to NHS records, he drank himself to death.

Similarly, police figures for 'alcohol related crime' rely on the police asking victims of a crime – rape, assault, theft, anything – 'do you think your assailant had been drinking'? At a tome of extreme stress, when many victims are so traumatised they are unable event o describe their victims, if they answer 'yes' to this question, it becomes an alcohol related crime.

I'm not asking you to agree with me here. I'm simply asking, given that this is the case, can you understand why we might be distrustful of stats that are reported as fact by the media?


I like you too a) for similar reasons and b) our websites are uncannily alike, one (not sure which) the evil twin of the other, though my beer background is used ironically. (Gargle Nation)

Agree stats are always open to error and we are all better served by looking for and acknowledging the weaknesses. But unavoidable weaknesses in collection methods don't nedessarily invalidate the findings if for the most part they are sound, which I argue these are. Human life is hard to quantify accurately, and if we insist on absolute certainty we are back with the tobacco industries challenge to 'prove beyond doubt that smoking causes cancer'.

Alcohol is enjoyed by many -my argument is not with the CAMRA crowd and majority of happy swillers out there, it's with the industry which , as the Royal College of Nurses calls it, is 'unscrupulous'.

Take the issue of alcohol strength. The industry has produced stronger and stronger products without being asked (wine up from av. 9% to 14%, lager/beer up from 3% to often 6-9%) which flies under the duty rada while causing needless additional addiction and harm to customers. Needless that is unless you actually make most of your money from alcoholics, which the industry does.

The new ONS stats miss this I believe because people are not generally aware that the strength of what they buy has changed.

The result is what the stats show, most average drinkers doing fine, but the growing 20% or so who abuse alcohol are hurting themselves more and costing the health service more.

Dr Wellman

One sure way to encourage excessive drinking is to make more booze available for less. Morrisons selling 3 packs of 12 cans for £18. 50p a can. And yet it is pubs that are closing and supermarkets getting bigger. That's the real conspiracy in all of this.


"The ‘passive effects' of alcohol misuse are catastrophic – rape, sexual assault, domestic and other violence, drunk driving and street disorder – alcohol affects thousands more innocent victims than passive smoking."

So wrote the Royal College of Physicians in 2008. Drinkers over the next few decades can expect the same vilification s smokers as the relentless tide of neo prohibition will unfold. If I can draw again an analogy with smoking the World Health Organization (WHO) has a worldwide framework to marginalise smokers with ever more restrictions, in 2008 there is now one for alcohol, of which the UK/EU are signatories.

Paid officials at the WHO and EU eagerly egged on by charities, mostly state or pharmaceutical funded will maintain a barrage of massaged statistics like your story. There was a paper out recently that said drinkers suffer from higher rates of cancer than non drinkers. Believe you me this is the thin end of the wedge.

If the study is true the figures were statistically insignificant. Most importantly the reason could easily be that drinkers simply live longer than tee totallers, typically 5 years. The longest lived people are those who drink 21-30 units a week. The 14 and 21 units was admitted by the chairman of the Committee Richard Smith the ex editor of the British Medical Journal in 2006 as "guesswork by a committee."

Boozewatch, what is your provenance for 20% abusing alcohol? How do you define an alcoholic? A survey done by the University of Leicester in 2007 with this questionnaire identified 0.4% of people as functioning alcoholics. Gambling addicts again are 0.7% of the population, so the low numbers do correlate.

The world has taken turn for the worse as charlatans follow the money. We may have deflected this one but more will follow behind it.

Here are the facts on drinking.



John Fleury

Boozwatch: No problem with health benefits of occasional drink (though wine seems better than beer), but the industry makes 50% of its profit from the 10% who are alcoholics, and it is increasingly targeting the young with worrying results.

– Here's an article showing the benefits to beer (and how it relates to wine) from Dr. Bamforth: http://www.craftbeer.com/pages/stories/craft-beer-muses/show?title=the-goodness-of-beer

– I do not work for the alcohol industry or have any dog in the fight. But reasonably speaking: most markets have to cater to the younger crowd. trends of brand loyalty always show correlation with age and they key demographics to many, many new products are the youngest possible who will consume it. I'm not taking a moral stance on this by any means, but the fact is it's a marketing game used by everyone from clothing, music, sugary cereals and beer. Combine the social media/internet aspects of marketing and you simply have more access to a younger, more connected population than some TV/magazine/other dying marketing source that is more expensive and less successful at creating a new brand loyalty and/or recognition. There are many aspects of marketing alcohol to younger kids (the huge alcopop boom especially here in the US) that are downright shameful– but to me it seems like a "hate the player, not the game" scenario.

Why is it when kids are obese, the media blames the parents (or gets a Mcdonald's type scapegoat while all the other fast food establishments get off scoff-free) but when kids drink, the beverage (which is almost always beer) is blamed?

Anyway, just my $.02


Replying to Dave and John – guess it comes down to whether or not you believe studies that say alcohol is bad for you, and if so in what quantity. The growing strength of beers and wines and wide availability of same and deliberate marketing to young people are a fact, but really don't amount to much if it's an ok product, but a worry if it isn't.

World Cancer Research Fund says unequivocally don't drink it. Prof Nutt says its toxic so can have no health benefits. Royal College of Physicians as you say point to the devatastion it can cause. etc etc

In the light of this kind of evidence (have a look at my blog Gargle Nation) isn't it logical to take steps to rein in an industry selling a toxic and addictive substance to the vulnerable. We did the same, sensibly imo, for tobacco. Not a ban, just responsible regulation.


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