So it’s National Alcohol Hysteria Week – sorry, Alcohol Awareness Week, and the papers are treating us to the usual parade of stories demonising drink and drinkers (accompanied, natch, by images of people drinking beer, especially cask ale).
It’s been a while since I’ve written about the information being released by anti-alcohol groups and swallowed without question by newspapers who simply don’t have the budgets or staff to do proper investigative journalism any more.
But I couldn’t let this one go after it was brought to my attention.
If I were going to be very naive, I’d say that Alcohol Awareness Week would be the perfect occasion to draw attention to the fact that, while there is still undoubtedly a problem with alcohol abuse in the UK (there always will be, so long as it is on sale, and if it were not on sale that problem would manifest itself elsewhere, in more dangerous substances) the scale of that problem is abating – at a dramatic rate.
This is great news for the country as a whole. It’s great news for health professionals and the burden on the NHS, and it’s great news for groups who are potentially at risk, such as young people who may drink more than they want to thanks to peer pressure.
But it’s bad news for groups like Alcohol Concern, because it undermines their case for even greater restrictions on the sale and availability of alcohol, particularly their poorly thought-out and badly substantiated argument for a 50p per unit minimum price. That’s why they have now begun to ignore the statistical data gathered by the government and the NHS, and create their own.
They do this, and they dare, they have the gall, to say that it is the alcohol industry that is behaving irresponsibly.
All sides in any debate use spin. Everyone takes stats and puts the best interpretation on them to help make the case you want to make. But to take the moral high ground and then simply IGNORE the official figures is quite simply immoral and irresponsible behaviour.
With binge drinking plummeting among among adults, neo-prohibitionists initially focused on drinking among the over 65s. But being unable to find any stats whatsoever to support their argument, they’re now attempting to hit the nation in the heart – by making us worry about children and young adults.
Today’s headlines are all about children as young as 13 getting drunk, and how it’s cheaper to get drunk than it is to go to the cinema.
Well, where do we start?
Let’s start with the fact – that’s FACT, Alcohol Concern – that ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION AMONG UNDER-AGE DRINKERS HAS HALVED IN THE LAST DECADE.
In 2001, a survey with far greater sample size, reliability and impartiality than Alcohol Concern’s own research suggested that 26% of children under the age of 18 had had a drink the week before the interview. By 2010 that number had fallen to 13%.
As this does not suit Alcohol Concern’s argument, instead they looked at ESPAD – the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which surveys behaviour among 15-16 year-olds.
Obviously, anyone who has the slightest interest in truthful and honest reporting would make sure they were using the very latest numbers available. Alcohol Concern chose not to – they chose a five year old, out of date survey, instead of using the 2011 ESPAD survey which they knew to be widely available.
Why would they do that? Why would they knowingly, deliberately use out-of-date, inaccurate figures? Oh, here’s why:
Percentage who are drunk at least once a month:
1999 – 49
2007 – 32
2011 – 26
Percentage drunk at least three times a month:
1999 – 24
2007 – 10
2011 – 8
Percentage drunk at least ten times in the last year
1999 – 28
2007 – 13
2011 – 7
Percentage drunk at least twenty times in their life time
1999 – 29
2007 – 13
2011 – 8
These figures show, across the board, a sharp decline in drunkenness among 15-16 year old students – even if you use the out-of-date figures.
Which is why Alcohol Concern decided to supplement this research with some of their very own.
Now, market research used to take up a big part of my day job. There are some basic principles for how you use it accurately.
Firstly, if you want to produce a meaningful, nationally representative sample, you have to do research in different parts of the country – habits in London are different from those in Scotland, Wales or Manchester, for example.
So can you guess what Alcohol Concern did?
They went to Newcastle – which, as Alcohol Concern knows, has the worst reputation in the country for under-age drinking in the UK. And they presented their findings from Newcastle as if they were an honest representation of the UK as a whole, when they know they are not.
Secondly, with research, you have to use the right techniques for the job. There are two different kinds of research: qualitative and quantitative. With qual, you dig deep into people’s habits and motivations, but you can’t use any statistics from it because you’re only talking to a small group of people – there simply aren’t the numbers to make it reliable. For that, you use quant – talking to large numbers of people in a way that doesn’t allow you to dig into detail, but gives you a statistically significant number. Best practice is that you use one to help the other – developing hunches in qual and validating them in quant, or spotting trends in quant and exploring what’s behind them in qual.
So again, can you guess what Alcohol Concern did?
They did a couple of qual groups that totalled nineteen – NINETEEN – teenagers, and presented their findings as if they were statistically valid.
They weren’t even valid for Newcastle, let alone the rest of the country.
If I had done something like this in advertising I would have been fired, and rightly so. If it were not cynically designed to be deliberately misleading, it would be breathtakingly incompetent.
There’s more that is wrong with this so-called research. It’s little better than a pack of lies. It does, off-hand, admit that there has been a ‘slight’ fall in overall alcohol consumption. 20% down in nine years? A fifth of the volume of booze drunk in this country on a yearly basis has disappeared in less than a decade and you call that ‘slight?!’
As the true story continues to improve, Alcohol Concern is getting increasingly desperate in its attempts to convince us of the existence of an entirely fictitious moral panic.
Shame on them.