So the main beer-related headline this morning (given that George Osborne deliberately misled the nation over his 5% alcohol duty rise by saying there was ‘no change’ to beer duty, which most people don’t realise means the punitive duty escalator remains in place) is that deaths by liver disease rocketed by 25% between 2001 and 2009.
This is shocking stuff, and any responsible drinks writer or commentator needs to acknowledge the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.
What’s actually positive about this news is that alcohol isn’t being blamed for every liver disease death – in the past, the Office of National Statistics has, for the sake of simplicity, recorded every liver disease statistic as being alcohol related, even while admitting this is inaccurate. At least in this new survey, they admit that it’s only one factor, along with obesity and hepatitis. But this reveals that alcohol actually contributes to a sizeable chunk – 37% of people who die of liver disease in their forties essentially drink themselves to death, for example.
If alcohol is going to continue to be the life enhancing treat that it is for most responsible drinkers, we need to understand why it becomes something much darker for a significant minority.
Which is why it doesn’t exactly help that every story I’ve seen on this so far this morning is illustrated by – yep, you guessed it – a pint of beer.
This is not me being defensive as a beer writer. This is me being angry at ignorant media creating a grossly inaccurate picture.
So liver disease increased by 25% from 2001 to 2009.
OK, here are some more numbers.
Over the same period as this rise, beer consumption FELL by 18%.
Most of the beer market is lager, and within this figure, premium lager (around 5% ABV) fell by 18%, while standard lager (around 3.5-4.4% ABV) fell by only 4%. So less beer is being sold, and within that, the steepest decline is for higher ABV drinks.
Kind of makes it hard to blame beer for a 25% rise in alcohol-related liver disease, no?
At the same time, wine consumption in the UK rose by 8%, and the average ABV of wine rose from 12% ABV to 13.5%.
Want to know what happened to spirits consumption between 2001 and 2009?
Up by 18%.*
As I proved in my last post, I’m no mathematician. And I do know the difference between correlation and causation. But it seems to me, reading these figures, that there is a very strong correlation indeed between the rise in alcohol-related liver disease and a trend for people to switch from beer to stronger drinks.
Beer, once again, is being used as the scapegoat. No doubt it makes sense to some, when we see that the biggest rises are among poor people, especially men, especially in deprived parts of the north, and the media stereotype of beer drinkers remains that of the northern working class male. But this stereotype is inaccurate, as I’ve pointed out many times before.
Liver disease is increasing because people are switching from beer to stronger drinks. We already know this though, because this has been true of every major alcoholism epidemic in history. In the gin epidemic of the eighteenth century, beer was part of the solution, not the problem, as the immortal cartoons by Hogarth show. It should be seen as that today.
And there’s another factor going on which NEVER gets written about (apart from by my excellent co-writer in this area, Phil Mellows). Most alcohol consumption takes place among affluent southerners. Statistically, the wealthier you are, the more you drink. And yet the poorer you are, the more likely you are to die of drink-related liver disease.
A child could see that alcohol-related mortality therefore has nothing to do with overall consumption. And yet the government and NHS strategy remains firmly founded on the fundamental belief that the best way to reduce alcohol-related harm is to reduce overall consumption (by measures such as minimum pricing etc).
Not only does this approach stigmatise and punish responsible drinkers, it does nothing to help those drinking harmfully. Put up the price of booze, and an alcoholic will spend less on food, and so on. There’s overall pattern of evidence to suggest that reducing overall consumption is the best way to reduce harm.
So what is it that makes poor drinkers in the north more likely to drink themselves to death than affluent drinkers in the south, who on average drink more? Oh, that’s too hard. That might involve addressing the societal, cultural and economic problems that are the REAL reasons some people drink harmfully.
Much easier simply to blame beer.
* All figures from the BBPA’s Statistical Handbook 2011