| Alcohol, Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism

Are we really drinking ourselves silly through lockdown?

Quick answer: No.

Image sourced from Google and labelled as rights cleared for use.

I pitched this piece to a couple of newspapers yesterday. For some reason, they declined it.

With headlines like these:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-52442936

https://www.thesun.co.uk/money/11370593/alcohol-sales-jump-shoppers-stock-up-coronavirus-lockdown/

https://thirdforcenews.org.uk/tfn-news/fears-as-drink-sales-surge-during-lockdown

You could be forgiven for thinking that sales of alcohol have jumped significantly during lockdown. Commentators across the political spectrum have expressed concern that we are drinking more than we did as we shield from Covid-19.

There’s just one problem: It’s not true.

Sales in the off-trade (corner shops, supermarkets and off-licences) are audited differently from sales in the on-trade (pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels.) They are reported separately. Every single time someone reports that drinks sales are up in March or April, they are looking at figures that only cover the off-trade. They completely ignore the on-trade, which was shut down on 20th March, and was already trading significantly down by then as fears of Covid-19 took root. The complete closure of pubs came several days after Boris Johnson told people not to go to pubs or bars, but fo some reason allowed them to stay open.

Last week, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) released net figures for beer sales. As you’d expect, the off-trade is significantly up: total take-home beers sales were 10.6% higher in March 2020 than they were in March 2019, with premium lager being the biggest driver.

But beer sales through pubs, bars and restaurants were calamitously down across the board, with a net decline of 39.5% versus last year. Sales for April 2020 will of course be down 100% versus last year.

The on-trade currently accounts for just under half of all drinks consumption – or it used to. So add the two together, and you get an overall decline in beer sales of 12.7% in March 2020 versus March 2019.

I haven’t seen a single media report quoting this figure.

I haven’t seen stats for wine or spirits – these are more focused towards take-home but will surely follow the same pattern.

Since lockdown began, every pint in a pub, every sandwich from Pret, every burger from McDonalds, every meal or glass of wine in a decent restaurant, has had to be replaced by food and drink at home. There seems to be a general understanding of this in every area apart from alcohol sales, where we suddenly forget that pubs ever existed and assume that the only reason off-trade sales are rising is problem drinking. I have yet to see a serious article suggesting that we are binge eating ourselves to death, or developing a worrying obsession with baking, or becoming dangerously addicted to doing jigsaws (sales of jigsaws and board games soared a worrying 240% during the first week of lockdown alone.)

Overall retail sales may have collapsed, but in the run-up to lockdown we spent an extra £2billion in supermarkets as we stocked up, making March 2020 the busiest month on record for supermarket sales. When the same newspapers who are worried that we are drinking ourselves through lockdown report on overall supermarket sales, they rightly explain that we are stocking up because we are confined to our homes, and buying more food because we can’t go to restaurants, cafes or sandwich shops.

Even if we were buying more, does buying more mean we’re drinking more? Not necessarily. But there’s drinking and there’s drinking. Another news story over the weekend:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/03/problem-drinking-soars-under-uk-lockdown-say-addiction-experts)

cites a survey that explored people’s alcohol consumption during lockdown. The Guardian report falsely claims that “Alcohol sales in Britain were 30% higher than usual in March,” and bases its claim that “problem drinking is soaring” on the fact that 20% of people say they are drinking more than usual during lockdown.

The thing is, if you read on, the same reports also says that a third of people – a far bigger number – are drinking less during lockdown, or have stopped altogether. Again, this doesn’t seem to have made the headlines anywhere.

There’s a natural tendency to equate overall drinking with problem drinking. Alcohol abuse strategies in the UK are based on the assumption that if we decrease overall alcohol consumption, we will reduce problem drinking. Statistically, at a population level, this may be true. But it creates the assumption that problem drinking is directly linked to the availability or affordability of alcohol, and this is not true. General population data show that the more affluent you are, the more you drink. But the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related harm.

This is because problem drinking has more to do with the pattern of drinking – what you drink, and how and why – than the overall amount you drink over the long term.

There are more people drinking less than there are people drinking more during lockdown, because for most people, drinking is a sociable activity. I know many people who enjoy a few drinks at the pub but never drink at home, for example. So now the pubs are closed and they’re stuck at home, they don’t drink.

I have no doubt that problem drinking is up – I’m in no place to contradict the health workers who report significant increases in calls for help, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. But problem drinking follows a very different pattern than drinking for most people. As Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, you might think “Of course you’d say that.” But as the child of an alcoholic, I know what problem drinking looks like. I grew up with it.

Problem drinking is often secretive. It’s hidden. Alcoholics don’t care how much their poison costs – they’ll simply sacrifice more of anything else to get it, such as spending the family allowance that should have bought new shoes or clothes for the kids on booze instead. In the worst circumstances, if they can’t get booze they’ll drink something else, such as methylated spirits or rubbing alcohol. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that problem drinkers are drinking more during lockdown, because it suits their MO.

And also because they are stressed, nervous and frightened. These are scary times. Any one of us might die of something we can’t see and don’t know enough about. If you problem-drink to alleviate stress or fear, of course you’re going to drink more just now.

But that doesn’t mean we are doing so as a population. We simply aren’t.

Problem drinking is not a drink problem, it’s a mental health problem. And until we talk about it as such, until we stop conflating overall alcohol sales/price/availability with the issues surrounding problem drinking, we are not helping those who need it most.

If you are worried about your own drinking during lockdown, this NHS page gives advice on where to start getting help, and this DrinkAware tool might help you work out if it is becoming a problem.

 

9 Comments

9 Comments

Michael Denholm

My problem is that pubs are closed! No meeting friends – and others to chat with whist enjoying proper ale. Wine in the evening? Definitely, because I don’t like the ‘fizz’ of bottled or canned beer. Spending more on alcohol? No: less!

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John Penny

Well done Pete. I’ve had it with mainstream media years ago. The more I look into this whole deal the more it sticks. Did you hear Lord Sumption on R4 last week or read the transcript in the ‘Spectator’? He sorts the deal out as eloquently as we would expect. Take a look, do.
Meanwhile, keep up the good work.

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Steve James

Excellent article, Pete, putting the whole issue in perspective. Probably more drinking at home, often alone, and missing out on social drinking at the pub

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geoff thompson

Lord Sumption is correct John. It is the experts job to discover and give us the facts so that we can decide on the action required because in that field we are just as able as them, it just requires something called a brain

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steve downing

Alcohol concern and other such bodies who issue these press releases to the media, have never been concerned about the voracity of their stats. or that they are disingenuous nonsense . The stats are usually based on the best year possible, so can expect all sorts of claims next year such as “binge drinking in pubs in April 2021 up by infinity and beyond” .

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Bradshaw

Across the whole of the alcohol market, about two-thirds is accounted for by the off-trade. Beer was the last segment to pass the tipping point, and your comment that “The on-trade currently accounts for just under half of all drinks consumption” only applies to beer.

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Charlie Mackle

The notion that alcohol and the beer/wine/pub trade are inherently bad for the population’s health is necessary justification for the levying of sin taxes like alcohol duty.

What is to be feared in the current crisis facing the beer and pub industry is that this sort of faux-puritanical reasoning will be used as reasoning for not adequately supporting the beer and pub industry when it has been mandated to close by the government. “Your local pub’s gone bankrupt? The silver lining is that you won’t be able to poison yourself there with alcohol any more.”

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Bradshaw

Over the years I’ve come across quite a few alcoholics who were enthusiastic pub drinkers, although in most cases they also drank outside the pub. It allows them to do it in plain sight, as the person who is the life and soul of the party and is always first in the pub and the last to leave.

Indeed I knew one (now dead) who as far as I know drank only in the pub, although he put away 15+ pints every night.

It’s not necessarily something that is always pursued furtively.

Reply

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