The press invariably swallows anti-alcohol stories without question. Even when a cursory glance reveals them to be increasingly silly.
Whenever the Institute of Alcohol Studies releases new research on the perils of drink, their findings are usually reported without question by the mainstream press. It’s never ‘the IAS claims this is the case’, just ‘this is the case’.
If the drinks industry said it had overwhelming evidence that drinking is good for you, newspapers would quite rightly report this as ‘the drinks industry claims’ this to be the case, and seek an opposing point of view for balance. They don’t do that with the Institute box Alcohol Studies, because it sounds important and learned. I wonder if things would be different if the IAS still went by its old name, The UK Temperance Alliance?
Anyway, we’re getting close to the budget, which means the drinks industry is campaigning for a reduction on alcohol duty, and the Temperance Movement (but please don’t call it that – these days it merely studies alcohol rather than. trying to ban it – honest) is campaigning for more punitive financial penalties on drinkers.
To support its case, the drinks industry points to data showing that the UK had the second highest beer duty in Europe, that Brits drink 12% of all the beer drunk in Europe but pay 40% of all the beer duty. It points out how many jobs the drinks industry creates, how much it contributes to the economy, and how duty increases hurt the industry and put these jobs at risk. It may be a coincidence that the volume of beer sold in the UK plummeted in the years of the Beer Duty Escalator (which saw duty increase automatically by inflation plus 2%), stabilised when the escalator was abolished, and then began falling again when Philip Hammond started to increase duty once more. But I doubt coincidence quite covers it. And I’m sure that’s why the Temperance Movement want drink to be more expensive.
Meanwhile, the Temperance Movement makes its case by producing scary data about the damage that alcohol is causing. But as almost every measure of alcohol related harm in society is in long term decline, they’re struggling harder and harder each year to find something negative to say. Cue last month’s research, reported without question by the Guardian, into the harm caused by parents drinking in front of their children.
According to this exposé:
- – Three in ten parents have been drunk in front of their children.
- – Half have been ‘tipsy’.
- – 15% of children have asked their parents to drink less.
- – 16% of parents have felt guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result of their drinking.
- – 12% of children said their parents paid them less attention because of their drinking.
- – 29% of parents believe it is acceptable to get drunk in front of their children as long as that does not happen very often.
This behaviour ‘can’ cause children to feel anxious, and have less respect for their parents. But there are no statistics offered to illustrate how serious this might be.
Well, let’s take another look.
‘Tipsy’ is different from drunk. There’s a big value judgement being made here that being tipsy is a bad thing. But moderate drinking makes people relaxed and happy, without losing control or becoming embarrassing. Are children who see their parents tipsy as upset by this as those who see their parents drunk? We’re not told. Is ‘tipsy’ being included here simply because the figures for ‘drunk’ are so small, and conflating the two allows the problem to be presented as more serious than it really is? Without seeing the raw data, I couldn’t say. But I’ll just leave the possibility there.
Now let’s get into the detail. I grew up with an alcoholic parent and it’s really not pretty. I’ve also designed research surveys. And if I truly wanted to understand the problems associated with drinking in front of children, if I genuinely wanted to do anything to help the children who are really being hurt by their parent’s behaviour, I’d want to look at the most serious cases. Instead of asking ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of your kids?” I’d be trying to quantify how often this happens by instead asking ‘How often have you been drunk in front of your children?’ And giving an answer grid along the lines of:
- – Never
- – Hardly ever – just on one or two occasions
- – Rarely – maybe once or twice a year
- – Sometimes
- – Often
This would allow me to separate families where it’s happened every now and then from those where it’s obviously a habit. I’d zoom in on those who answered ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’, and it’s those parents – and their kids – that I’d want to know more about. I’d want to cut the data so I could compare and contrast the emotions of kids who often saw their parents drunk with the feelings of those where it’s only ever happened once or twice, so I could start to speculate on whether the real harm to kids was the spectacle of ever having seen their parents pissed, or the regularity of it.
My personal bias: in my experience, it was the fact that it happened every week – the regularity and inevitability of it – that was so upsetting about my alcoholic parent’s behaviour. I only ever saw the other parent drunk once a year at Christmas and I thought it was funny and charming in their case. By contrast, the alcoholic parent’s behaviour made my home feel like a prison. The real hurt – which I certainly felt and which I’ve seen confirmed by many other accounts – is the sense that this parent, given a choice, will always choose alcohol over any concern for their kids. Imagine how that feels, what it does to a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth, compared with ‘Oh mummy/daddy you acted silly last Christmas’. But I guess the distinction between these two effects is not important to the people who claim they are more concerned about alcohol-related harm in society than anyone else. I guess they know better.
(Oh, and for the record: the alcoholic parent never touched beer and wine. I’ve never understood why pictures of spirits feature so seldom in stories about alcohol harm.)
Of course, to go into this kind of detail and distinction would by definition give me a much lower percentage of the total population than if I simply asked ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of the kids?’ Back when I was designing research questionnaires, that’s the question I’d ask if my only intention was to produce the biggest number possible so I could share it to create a media story, rather than digging into the true scale and nature of the problem.
I haven’t seen the study questionnaire. Maybe they did ask a ‘rarely/sometimes/often question. But whether they did or not, the IAS is only reporting the overall number and declining to give any useful textural detail – if there is any. I wonder why?
Whatever was asked, we can only work with the data that’s been reported. And the way this is being positioned is ‘Have you ever been drunk in front of your kids’? Think about that. Think about every year, both mum and dad having a birthday, probably a wedding anniversary, the family experiencing Christmas and New Year, the kickback of a summer holiday. Then think about the likelihood of bereavements, funerals, or the quick fix to cope with stress at work. Think about this over the course of five, ten, fifteen years of parenthood. Take all this into account, look at the question again, and realise that it’s asking ‘Have you EVER done this, even once, on any of these occasions?’, and then flip the answers around.
Through the entire period of parenthood:
- – 70% of parents have never been drunk in front of their kids – not once, not at a party, not on their birthday, not at new year – never.
- – Half of parents have never even been tipsy in front of their kids.
- – 85% of children have never asked their parents to drink less
- – 88% of children say their parents have never paid less attention to then because of their drinking.
- – 84% of parents have never felt guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result for their drinking.
- – 71% of parents think it is unacceptable to get drunk in front of their kids, even if its doesn’t happen very often.
- Doesn’t seem like so much of a crisis now, does it?
If I’d presented these numbers this way around in order to demonstrate that there’s not much of as problem here, doubtless sceptics would point to the numbers and say “Ah, but maybe parents are’t being truthful? Maybe they’re under-claiming?” Well, maybe they are. But when presented the other way around, the IAS and the media clearly felt the numbers were so large as to be a cause for alarm. I’m only working with the IAS’s own data here – data they are presenting as robust and sound – and looking at it in a different way.
Children are an emotive topic in any regard, and are therefore an effective way to get your point across. Not long after this research came out, the latest figures (for 2015) on under-age drinking were released. They show that under-age drinking has fallen to its lowest level since the survey began in 1990. Strangely, the Temperance Movement made no mention of this in their commentary on the figures. Instead, they pointed out that the rate of decline was slowing, and suggested this was a cause for concern, rather than an inevitable slowing given the consistent fall in the numbers meaning there’s a substantially smaller base left for any further reduction to come from.
I have said this before. But if you were genuinely concerned about the harm alcohol cases in society – and make no bones about it, alcohol does cause harm in some places – wouldn’t you celebrate a reduction in that harm instead of deliberately trying to exaggerate the scale of it? And wouldn’t you want to help those most at risk rather than doing your absolute damnedest to make it seem like everyone was at it?