Tag: answering the neo-prohibitionists

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Six ways to spot if anti-drink stories are trying to mislead you

Our old friends, the media’s favourite ‘binge drinking’ shots. One of these is staged by an actor. The other two show what might well be moderate alcohol consumption.

I do get bored of writing pieces that take down the regular tide of increasingly dishonest scare stories from anti-alcohol lobbies. But I also get increasingly angry that no mainstream news outlet seems prepared to do the same.

The other day we had yet another scare – the third in a week – when the coalition of anti-alcohol groups known as the Alcohol Health Alliance wrote an open letter to George Osborne warning him not to abolish the Duty Escalator, as this would lead to an increase in the £21 billion cost of alcohol to society, which far outstrips the £10billion raised by duty on booze.
While no newspaper challenged this as far as I can see, Christopher Snowdon did an excellent takedown on it, all the more effective for being so dispassionate. Chris, along with Phil Mellows and Paul Chase, are often quicker off the mark than I am these days, and have a surer grasp of the sometimes complicated stats that make it so easy for temperance groups to lie to us. Add all three to your blog roll. 
So I think Chris has this latest one covered – though it does anger me that I took apart the £21 billion claim four years ago and it’s still being quoted as fact.
It struck me that rather than simply repeat what Chris said in an angrier fashion, it might be more useful for me at this point to share some of the tips I’ve learned over the years for reading through these claims in the first place. Most of them don’t require you to do any extra reading, but do arm you with the healthy scepticism you need to read almost anything written about alcohol in the national press these days. (Many of them are also quite useful for any article on benefit scroungers, immigrants, urban foxes, or any other issue the Daily Mail is seeking to create a moral panic over.)
So here we go: seven questions to ask yourself when trying to work out if an article on drink is trying to mislead you:

1. Does the piece focus on specific examples rather than overall trends?
The common, time-honoured tactic of papers like The Sun and the Daily Mail is to take isolated cases and make them appear to be the norm. It’s extraordinarily effective: this North London muslim cleric is preaching hate speech against the west; this family of asylum seekers cheated the system; this family on benefits gets £30k a year and says they will never get a job… run two or three stories like this, and we start to believe they’re all at it. Almost always, in each case, any data available shows that these are random, isolated examples and are not reflective of the bigger picture, yet we start to believe they are. 
Using personal examples to bring a statistical story to life is good journalism. Using isolated examples to imply a trend when there is no data to suggest such a trend exists is not.
When the Daily Mail goes out to find pictures of drunken excess on New Year’s Eve, it will find them, because it knows where to look for them, and goes there, then pretends they are showing something typical of everywhere. They don’t reveal how hard they had to look, or how selective their choice of pictures had to be. 
(These stories are close relations to the Express’ ‘Global warming must be rubbish because it’s snowing outside my house,’ and the Guardian-style ‘Setting up your own online ethnic jewellery business must be THE trend of 2014 because two of my friends from uni are doing it’.) 
2. Has new research been published or is there any other genuine hook for the story?
New figures, such as the regular new studies that show moderate drinkers live longer, or that alcohol sales have declined again, are newsworthy because they are new. If there are none in the story, then its newsworthiness must be questioned. There was nothing new in yesterday’s letter to George Osborne. In fact the data it relied on is a decade old. I often have positive stories about beer and pubs rejected because they have no news hook. The same criterion seems not to apply to stories scaring people about alcohol.
3. If there are numbers, what is their source and how recent are they?
If the facts don’t fit, anti-alcohol groups have a habit of simply making them up. Last January, for example, Alcohol Concern launched its Dry January blitz with some sensational stats claiming 40% of daytime and 60% of nighttime hospital admissions were caused by alcohol. They provided no source for these figures, and ignored requests to do so. Of course their claims were still reported as fact, even though NHS figures show nothing of the kind. Look for stats compiled by the NHS and by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which present the most accurate guess at what’s happening to our behaviour and, with the exception of liver disease, show long term, consistent decline in just about every measure of alcohol consumption and alcohol related harm.
Also, check how recent the data is, and where it’s from. The estimated £21 billion cost of alcohol to society is, on top of all its other flaws, based on a cabinet office report that is now 10 years old and therefore reflects higher levels of consumption, and drinking patterns as they were before the 2005 licensing act came into force. The much referred to ‘Sheffield Study’, on which the whole case for Minimum Unit Pricing is based, relies heavily on research carried out between 2002 and 2009 in two Canadian provinces – Ontario and British Columbia – where the availability and sale of alcohol is state controlled and operates entirely differently from the UK, and therefore is limited in its suitability as a comparison to the situation here.
As the problem with alcohol continues to recede, there’s an emerging trend to quote old data even when newer data shows the problem is in decline. In this example, Alcohol Concern knowingly and deliberately used out-of-date figures about under-age drinking that had been superseded by more recent figures that showed a marked decline in the problem. This led to newspaper headlines about ‘soaring’ alcohol abuse when the very data this claim was based upon showed it was actually declining.
This last example also illustrates a more popular method of misrepresenting data. Beware claims such as ‘Worry as over 45s now drink more than students’. This could be due to over 45s drinking more, or it could be due to students drinking less. If it is because over 45s are drinking more, you can guarantee the story will talk about a ‘shocking rise’ in figures that are ‘soaring’. If such an increase is not specified and the number is presented as a snapshot with no context over time, you can pretty much guarantee that the figure, whatever it is, and however shocking it might seem, is actually in decline over time, and that’s why they have not told you what the trend is.

4. Who wrote the piece and what is their interest?
As a Guardian reader, I get upset when a paper I generally trust (go on, take the piss here if you really need to) suddenly turns into the Daily Mail. On closer inspection, many of these articles are written by a ‘health editor’, who probably therefore has a different agenda and a different set of close contacts than a news reporter would (just as, to be fair, a business editor would have closer links with industry.) In articles such as this one, Guardian health writers consistently attack ‘the powerful alcohol industry’ for lobbying against Minimum Unit Pricing, when the facts are that large portions of the beer world – including CAMRA, many pub operators, Greene King, Tennents, the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group and the supposedly irresponsible (hint: they’re not irresponsible) Brew Dog were all publicly and loudly in favour of Minimum Pricing. At one stage the chief executives of twelve pub groups, brewers and night club chains wrote an open letter to David Cameron demanding he introduce minimum pricing. Yet the article above illustrates claims about the power of ‘the alcohol lobby’ killing MUP with a picture of beer. Whether you agree with these pro-MUP brewers and retailers or not, articles that repeatedly accuse the government of dancing to the tune of the drinks industry when the government is in fact acting against the wishes of a significant chunk of that industry are grossly inaccurate. That inaccuracy is borne out of the bias (or sometimes plain laziness) of the author.

5. Are the ‘experts’ being quoted really experts in what they’re talking about?  
When I’m ill I go to my doctor and I trust completely what she tells me about my health. If she were to tell me that alcohol had damaged my liver, I would believe her, especially if she referred me to a liver specialist who told me the same. 
But if my doctor were to say, “You know what? If you put a beer logo on a football shirt, that will make ten year old fans of that football club want to drink that beer,” I would say, “Well that’s your opinion, but you’re hardly an expert in that area, so there is no way you can assert that as fact with no research to back up your opinion.” 
That’s not how it works in public though. The 2009 Alcohol Select Committee report chose to believe a representative of the British Medical Association’s claims about the effect of alcohol advertising on children despite an independent report from people who were qualified in this area (unlike, say, a medical doctor) casting severe doubts on both the methodology and conclusions of the doctor’s claims. There are doctors and doctors. Some doctors, for whatever reason, have a personal passion against alcohol, and because they are doctors, their personal opinions are quoted as fact. When a doctor says that alcohol advertising deliberately targets kids, that doctor has nothing in his training that qualifies him better than anyone else to make this assertion. And I know that that doctor has never had an ad banned or a script rejected, like I had on many occasions in my advertising days, on the mere possibility that it just might appeal to children, even when there is no evidence that it does, when it contravenes neither the spirit nor letter of the strict advertising guidelines on this issue, and when there has been no complaint received that it does appeal to kids.

6. Are the claims being made by the protagonist countered or challenged in any way?
Use of language is an immediate giveaway as to whether the piece is impartial or not. Here’s a classic: Minimum pricing would save 860 lives a year, study finds. Not ‘study claims’, but ‘study finds’. The headline tells you all you need to know: here is a press release from an anti-alcohol organisation that has been accepted as incontrovertible fact by the (health) journalist writing the story. 
Moving beyond the choice of words used, the people quoted in the piece prove clear bias and a total lack of impartiality. We hear from the Alcohol Health Alliance, the lead author of the study, and of course professor Ian Gilmore. These three anti-alcohol voices are not balanced by one comment or contribution from the other side of the debate, and there is none offered by the journalist herself.
Once again, I’m not saying there is no alcohol problem. If you see an article where new data from an impartial source shows soaring alcohol problems, reported as news, then fair enough. But such articles are increasingly rare. As the true scale of our drinking problem continues to recede, all the tactics above are being used on an increasingly frequent basis to hide this truth from us. Next time you see a scare story on booze, give this checklist a try.

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Sir Ian Gilmore and Alcohol Concern are lying to us and damaging our understanding of alcohol related health issues

A strong headline.

If it isn’t true, I can easily be sued for libel. I’m not expecting to be served legal papers any time soon, and that’s because of two news stories published today.

The first is from the hateful, fear-mongering Daily Mail. Under the headline ‘‘Meteoric rise’ in alcohol-related deaths’, the Mail gives a summary of Sir Ian Gilmore’s speech at a conference yesterday hosted by Alcohol Concern. In this speech he cites a ‘meteoric’ rise in deaths by liver disease, and we are told that alcohol-related hospital admissions are at an all-time high. The article also mentions a 2011 study showing that 30% of boys and 25% of girls claim to have been drunk in the last thirty days.

This all seems very clear. Except it isn’t.
Also today, Public Health England announced that it will be changing the method of alcohol-related hospital statistics following acknowledgement that the figures quoted yesterday are misleading. Hospital admissions are broken down into primary and secondary causes. If you get so drunk you have alcohol poisoning, alcohol is your primary cause of admission. If you’re admitted with liver disease or high blood pressure – which could be caused partly by drinking, as well as other factors, alcohol is a secondary cause of your admission. 
Even if you don’t drink. 
It goes beyond that – I’ve written here before about how if you have an accident or injury, and you have had a drink, your admission is alcohol-related even if that drink did not – could not – have been relevant. If you’re having a glass of wine in a restaurant and the roof caves in on you, for example, your injuries are alcohol-related.
So the body that releases the statistics is recalculating them because they are misleading, splitting out primary and secondary causes more clearly. Alcohol Concern and Ian Gilmore know this, even as they continue to cite these statistics.
But today’s report reveals something even more extraordinary. Because even if you think the stats are accurate and true, as I’m sure Gilmore and Alcohol Concern do, according to the people who compile them, you cannot use them to suggest that alcohol related hospital admissions are increasing – as Gilmore and friends frequently do. Here’s what a spokesperson for Public health England has to say:
Much of this increase is believed due to improvements in diagnosis and recording… these improvements mean that while recent estimates are likely to be a better reflection of the comorbidity [secondary disorders] associated with alcohol, estimates from earlier time periods are not directly comparable as they will have underestimated the number of secondary conditions related to alcohol. [My emphasis]
So, depending on whether you are pro- or anti-drink, either: 
Gilmore and Alcohol Concern are talking bollocks because the official figures overestimate alcohol related hospital admissions
Gilmore and Alcohol Concern are talking bollocks because the official figures show an increase only because of improvements in measurement, not because of changes in behaviour.
Either way, these people know about this. They know they should not be using these figures to claim a rise in alcohol related hospital admissions. But they do it anyway, wilfully misleading the nation. 
In addition, Gilmore and Alcohol Concern repeatedly avoid the medical fact that only around 37% of liver disease is primarily caused by alcohol – it’s also caused by Hepatitis C and obesity. They never refer to Britain’s rising obesity epidemic as a possible cause of rising liver disease. It must be alcohol consumption, even though that is declining long term.
Oh, and those figures above talking about the percentage of kids drinking? What the Mail refuses to tell you is that the survey from which they were taken showed a REDUCTION in underage drinking. That’s why they don’t tell you what the figure was a few years before.
We are being lied to. Tell everyone.

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If you really care about the rise in liver disease, read this

Gin Lane

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.

Beer Street

* All figures from the BBPA’s Statistical Handbook 2011

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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.

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2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part two)

Here’s part two of my review of the year – three more arbitrary categories…

Villains of the year: The rise and rise of the neo-pros

I spent most of January trying to offer a robust and factually based defence against the wilful distortions and occasional outright lies told by those who seek to curb our right to drink.  The actual data – from most sources – suggests that Britain’s drink problem is declining, yet the NHS, Government and newspapers from the Daily Mail right through to the Guardian are trying to tell us the ‘epidemic’ is getting worse.  Any rational, scientific analysis of the data shows this is not true.  But no one is giving us that analysis. 
As the biggest consumer body, CAMRA does absolutely nothing to confront or challenge the lies being told about drinkers and pubs.  All it does is ‘welcome’ the bits where people like Alcohol Concern acknowledge the role of well run community pubs as part of the solution, not the problem, and campaign for a lower rate of duty for low strength beers.  Where distortions are put forward about drink in a wider sense, CAMRA remains silent.  Always.  
People like Mike Benner deserve to be congratulated for at least getting Alcohol Concern to concede the point on community pubs.  But for a body that, according to its website, acts ‘as the consumer’s champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry’ (ie it’s NOT ‘just about real ale’, as many of its defenders are quick to argue) it plays no role at all in supporting the industry or the consumer in this wider attack on our right to drink and our reputation as drinkers.
The BBPA is little better – though it at least has an excuse.  If the BBPA were to actively argue that the scale of alcohol abuse in this country were being deliberately exaggerated and distorted (it doesn’t), the media would say “well you would say that wouldn’t you?  You’re the drinks industry.” Even though this argument is never put to self-declared temperance advocates,  whose “findings” are accepted without dispute.  Every time.
Look at the case of David Nutt, for example.  In the autumn, he published a study that was not peer-reviewed, had a deeply questionable methodology, and had questionable, self-interested motivations, claiming that alcohol was more harmful then hard drugs such as heroin.  His findings were published without question, as ‘authoritative’ scientific fact.  The Guardian broke this story on a Monday.  I wrote to the Guardian pointing out the problems with methodology and the self-interest point, arguing that the Guardian, as professional journalists, should at least show some scepticism about what they were being told.  I was ignored.  An archive search shows that in the week that followed, no dissenting voice was published in the paper arguing against Nutt’s claims.  And yet on the Friday, he was given a full page to ‘answer his critics’ – critics who no one had actually been allowed to hear from.
And look at the case of the Dentist’s Chair.  The legislation banning promotions that encourage excessive alcohol consumption actually names the Dentist’s Chair specifically. Even though, at the time the legislation was passed, it seems that there was only one pub in Newcastle that actually did it.
A few people think I overreact about this.  But I’ve studied Prohibition in some detail for my books, and the point about everything from total Prohibition in the US through to the UK smoking ban in 2007 is that before you pass the legislation, you create a climate in which most people will support it.  That’s what’s happening now, and it’s happening quickly, and it’s happening because we are being deceived about the true scale of the problem.
Ben Goldacre, we need you.
Time to cheer up I think…

Personal regalvanisation event of the year: America

I’ve done so much this year that I haven’t had chance to write about a lot of it.  Partly I’m too busy doing stuff to actually write about it, partly the process of getting features commissioned, delivered and published is akin to the gestation period of an elephant.
In October I went to the US for ten days.  A trip that was based upon a book and a feature I’m writing expanded to include a bit of self-indulgent travelling.
It’s the first time I’ve been to the US for four years, first time in New York for six years, first time I’ve done a big beery adventure since I got back from India at the end of 2007.
And it’s a trip that completely reset me. 
I spend so much of my time now writing about the kind of shit above, arguing with people about beer style definitions, trying to meet trade press deadlines, negotiating the fine balance of political interest around the Cask Report, or worrying about keeping abreast with everything that’s happening in an ever-accelerating craft beer scene, I sometimes wonder why I want to be a professional beer writer, making my living from researching and commenting upon the beer and pub industry.
I went to New York and visited a couple of the obvious craft beer bars, and also found wonderful dive bars where the spirit of the boozer is alive and well.  I went to Brooklyn, had a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery, almost finished in its ambitious expansion, had a tasting of the stunning, poetic boutique beers Garrett Oliver is creating, then went out and got riotously drunk with Garrett in a selection of stylish Brooklyn craft beer bars, before wondering off into the New York night.  The next morning, scrolling back, I had cause to regret the invention of Twitter, reading what I’d posted the night before.
Then I got on a plane to Rochester, New York, the main purpose of my visit.  In an unassuming town, robbed of much of its purpose after the decline of Eastman Kodak, I visited the Old Toad, the pub I’d come to write about, one of the first real ale pubs in North America. 
My plan on Day One had been to sit at the end of the bar, order a pint and take in the ambience, observing anonymously before introducing myself to the people I was there to meet.  I was on the premises for ten seconds before someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Pete?”  They were waiting for me, Rochester’s craft beer drinkers, and they proceeded to show me a life-affirmingly excellent time. 
In three days I never got my chance to sit quietly at the end of the bar on my own.  I tried it one afternoon and the staff were sitting there trying to put together a ‘trifecta’ beer, food and whisky matching menu, which they pulled me into.  I mentioned that I loved Buffalo Wings and was taken to the place that served the best wings outside Buffalo itself – which also had a great selection of American micros.  I mentioned I loved the whole dive bar thing and was taken to Rochester’s best dive bars – which, again, had a great selection of American micros.  The Old Toad and its sort-of-sibling, the Tap and Mallet, and the group of great beer fans who drink in them, are worth the price of a transatlantic plane fare on their own.
But I wasn’t done yet.  On the Amtrak, around the Lakes and up to Toronto, to stay for a few days with Rudgie out of Hops and Glory, who now lives there.  A few days in town with him and the excellent Steve Beaumont, and again Toronto’s constituency of craft beer fans, beer writers and Hops and Glory fans were waiting for me in the craft beer pubs and at Volo, a one-time Italian restaurant that now boasted a cask ale festival featuring over thirty Canadian real ales, including some of the best Imperial porters and dark IPAs – sorry, “Cascadian dark ales” – I’ve ever tasted.  We won’t mention Rudgie taking us to the hockey game only to find out we had tickets for the wrong day, because we still had one of those evenings you remember for years, and the following morning he drove me for two hours up through Ontario to Creemore Springs, a craft brewery in a town strongly reminiscent of Groundhog Day’s Punxsutawney, especially when the Halloween snow started flying at the windscreen.  Creemore Springs itself was an object lesson in great Kellerbier and how sometimes, a macro can go into a partnership with a micro successfully, to the benefit of both partners.
Beer people, beer places, and great beer.  I came back from that trip re-energised, repurposed, the flame of passion for this crazy, infuriating, eccentric scene burning brighter than ever, with so many plans and ideas for 2011 and, more importantly, a pubfull of great new friends.
This is what beer is all about.  This is why I started this, was pulled into it, allowed it to change my life.
All of which makes me even more frustrated about…

Green ink moments of the year: Craft beer, CAMRA, real ale and beer styles

Beer is only any good if it’s from cask.  Fuller’s ESB is not ‘to style’ for an ESB.  The new wave of keg beers will consign cask to history.  Brewery X has grown so big I no longer like their beers (even though the beer hasn’t changed).  Micro is good, macro is bad – but how do we define micro?  Craft beer is a meaningless term and we shouldn’t use it.  Greene King IPA is not a true IPA.  Micros are parasites feeding off regional brewers.  Craft beer is only craft beer if the brewery producing it is below a certain size.  This beer is not really real ale if it served with gas pressure.  How can you have a black IPA?
Shut up.  All of you, just shut up.
I include myself in that.  I get pulled into some of these debates – I even fuel them sometimes – but I always regret doing so, and I apologise for every moment in 2010 where I’ve made people focus on these aspects of beer more than they otherwise would have.
On some level they’re important.  But try this test.  Find a friend or work colleague who you think is open to discovering the flavours of your favourite beer, but currently just drinks something boring and characterless.  Now try to interest them in that beer by telling them about your definition of craft beer, or real ale, or talking to them about the politics of craft brewing, or explaining the importance of the absence of cask breathers.
Now you’ve lost their interest and reaffirmed their status as a wine drinker for the foreseeable future, find a similar friend or colleague, and say, “Here, drink this,” and if they’re interested, tell them a bit about the history or provenance of it, or why it tastes as good as it does with reference to how it’s made and what’s in it.
Or if you can’t be bothered, just shut up.  Find the beer that made you fall in love with great beer.  Drink it.  Savour it. Enjoy it. And marvel at how good beer can be, how much happiness it can bring, the flavour sensations, the inspiration, the soft mellow buzz, the conviviality, the laughter, the friends.
Part three tomorrow.

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The MAIN reason Professor Nutt is bad for our health

There are many, many reasons to be angry, frustrated, or simply full of despair at former Drug Czar Professor David Nutt’s latest outburst claiming alcohol is more damaging than any other drug, including crack and heroin.

There’s the fact that many reputable news outlets chose yet again to illustrate the story with a picture of cask ale, the least damaging, lowest alcohol drink on the market.

Or the fact that in many places Nutt was reported as ‘confirming’ or ‘revealing’ how damaging alcohol is, rather than ‘claiming’ alcohol to be more damaging – accepted as fact, rather than challenged in any way.

There’s the fact that Nutt has a serious conflict of interest which has gone uncommented on – that he is working with a team at Imperial College to develop a synthetic drug that gives a temporary alcohol buzz without the effects of drunkenness – something that will surely have a commercial application if trials are successful – meaning he has a personal, potentially profitable interest in undermining alcohol’s place in society – a fact that, at best, means his findings should be scrutinised rather than simply accepted.

There’s the fact that in the methodology of his study, the scores given to each drug are a combination of harm to the self and harm to others.  And when you break it down, even according to Nutt’s own research, ALCOHOL IS NOT THE MOST DAMAGING DRUG TO THE INDIVIDUAL.  The reason alcohol gets the highest overall score is because it is calculated to give by far the highest score for damage to others – which I’ll come on to in a sec.  But Nutt’s own research shows heroin, crack and methylamphetamine are more damaging to the user than alcohol.  This is determined by a combination of different factors, such as dependence, mortality etc.  Serious concerns have been raised regarding the relative weighting of these factors.   But never mind the fact that the methodology is flawed – even though the report DOES NOT CLAIM that alcohol is more harmful to the individual than any other drug, that’s exactly what has been reported.

The ‘harm to others’ bit is made up of scores given to various factors such as crime, injury, damage to the environment, cost to communities etc.  For many of these, there is no way of calculating them accurately.  Earlier this year I detailed serious doubts about the methodology of calculating economic cost, crime, cost to the health service, etc.  And where there is no data available, Nutt and his team simply MADE THE SCORE UP.  As the excellent Phil Mellows reveals this morning – these expert, scientific scores were determined not by months of research but by a one day workshop where they sat around and chatted, assigning scores as they saw fit.  Scientific? About as scientific as a bunch of blokes in a pub working out a top ten list of shaggable birds.

And Nutt’s previous writing on alcohol reveals a worrying lack of knowledge even about current alcohol policy.  In a recent ’21 point action plan’ to combat what he inaccurately refers to as an alcochol epidemic, this ‘expert’ on policy seemed unaware of the introduction of the mandatory code that limits promotions encouraging excessive drinking, and he repeated various ‘facts’ and figures that have been shown to be dubious. (My point-by-point response to his ill-informed action plan is comment number 44 beneath his post).  I don’t believe that, on the basis of the knowledge he displays here, Nutt is qualified to determine the cost of alcohol to society.   And then there’s the dodginess around weighting of different factors again.

Most obviously, Nutt doesn’t take into account the simple fact that alcohol is drunk by millions – of course it’s going to have a bigger impact.  But when over 80% of us drink within the government’s recommended guidelines, the simple fact – that is completely ignored here – is that the vast majority of people drinking alcohol do so without causing harm to themselves or others, and the same cannot be said of many other drugs calculated here.

So – of course – the entire thing is a load of bollocks that has been widely accepted as fact.  So far so predictable.

But here’s the main reason why I think this report is damaging:

I agree with what Nutt is trying to do.

When Nutt was sacked for saying alcohol was more harmful than LSD or cannabis, what he was actually trying to do was draw attention to the fact that government classification of drugs is completely out of whack with those drugs’ actual harmful effects.  He’s right.  The vast majority of ‘harm’ caused by illegal drugs is, in many cases, because of their illegality.  Heroin users contracting diseases through using shared needles.  Drug users turning to crime to fuel their habit.  Drug pushers forming organised international crime cartels.

Cannabis, used in moderation, isn’t harmful – just like alcohol.  And yet it’s illegal.  The number of deaths from ecstasy use is tiny compared to the proportion of people using it – and it could be argued they were at least partially due to lack of information, because the drug is illegal.  As Bill Hicks said memorably, no one ever took LSD and said “Let’s go and beat some people up”.  And despite popular myth, there has been no recorded case of someone jumping to their death because they were tripping and thought they could fly.  British aristocracy has a long history of heroin users living to a ripe old age because, although the drug is highly addictive, if you have access to a regular, clean supply, take it in the right doses, and you’re free to lie around doing nothing all day being really boring, and you have people to look after you, it doesn’t actually do you that much damage.

The only reason cannabis is illegal in America is because the hemp industry posed a serious threat to the dominance of the petrochemical industry in the 1920s, who were a very powerful lobbying force, which is why not just cannabis but any hemp product – even cloth – was made illegal. I’m paraphrasing, but read this excellent book for more details on the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of drugs policy.

Many people working with addicts suggest the best way to deal with drugs is to legalise them.  Schemes where drugs have been made readily available to users, in a controlled environment, have consistently shown huge success in getting people off those drugs.

Policy on drugs is driven by political ambition, expediency, and commercial lobbying interests far more than it has anything to do with damage to the individual or society.  On that I’m sure David Nutt and I would agree 100%.  But because he’s an unashamed publicity seeker, every time he tries to make this point he does so by attacking alcohol in a way that is at best distorted, and at worst deliberately inaccurate.

That’s what makes me most mad.  Because if Nutt truly wants a sensible debate about the relative harm that drugs do, all he succeeds in achieving is giving ammunition to the neo-prohibitionists who would rather any intoxicating drug be banned outright.  Nutt’s approach is never going to make anyone say ‘Why isn’t cannabis or ecstasy legal?’  All he’s doing is encouraging people to be as stupid and wrong about alcohol as they are about other drugs.

And that’s why it is David Nutt who is causing huge damage to individuals and to society as a whole.

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Hold the front page – Daily Mail twists truth to scare people over drink

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel these days I know, but after being alerted to this by a fellow blogger, I couldn’t let it pass without comment.

The Mail this week ran a story titled ‘Beer for breakfast? Pub chain Wetherspoon to open at 7am‘.

It’s one of those classic weasels whereby if you read to the end of the piece, you eventually get the true facts. But journos know that most people read the headline and the first paragraph. If you did that here, you could only come away with the very clear impression that Wetherspoons is going to start serving – as the headline says – ‘beer for breakfast’, from 7am.

The only trouble is, that’s not true:
  • Wetherspoons will NOT be serving alcohol when they open at 7am – they won’t be serving alcohol till 9am – meaning the headline is factually inaccurate:
  • Wetherspoons ALREADY serve alcohol from 9am – so this is not news – in terms of pursuing its anti-drink agenda, there is actually no story here. Wetherspoons is NOT extending the hours during which it serves alcohol, even though the story is desperately trying to make you think they are.

So far, so Daily Mail. But the reason I had to write this piece was the following sentence:

“The new early hours are one result of the controversial shift to 24-hour licensing laws that has also coincided with a rise in concern about under-age drinking.”

Even by the Mail’s standards, this is a masterclass in deceit and distortion, and deserves to be dissected and studied carefully.

Firstly, its place in the article seems odd. Why are we suddenly talking about underage drinking when we were just talking about breakfast in Spoons? Read it quickly – as most of us do – and you’ll think that Spoons opening for breakfast is going to encourage underage drinking. This is not what the sentence says, and it wouldn’t make sense of it did now we’ve established alcohol won’t even be served at breakfast time. But if it’s not trying to do that, why is it here? It’s actually irrelevant in this story – it’s part of an entirely different story. Given that alcohol is not being served, the whole area of licensing laws and ’24 hour drinking’ is irrelevant to the story – this breakfast move has nothing to do with liberalised licensing hours whatsoever. This point is only here to create an entirely false association between Wetherspoons and under-age drinking.

Secondly, look carefully at the sentence itself – it links two entirely separate concepts – 24 hour licensing laws and underage drinking. It cleverly uses the word ‘coincided’ because there is no evidence whatsoever that what they refer to as “24 hour licensing laws” have had any impact on underage drinking, but still, the link is forged.

And finally, there’s that beautiful weasel of ‘a rise in concern about underage drinking’
What’s that you say? Under-age drinking is rising? Oh hang on, no, that’s not what you said is it? Because under age drinking is not rising, and you know it’s not rising. In fact every single survey conducted since the new licensing laws were introduced, such as those surveys discussed here and here, shows that underage drinking is FALLING.

But you say ‘concern’ over underage drinking is rising? It is, is it? Among whom? And why? Wouldn’t have anything to do with the Daily Mail creating a scare story where none exists, would it?

Take a bow Sean Poulter. Even by the standards of your colleagues, this is a brilliant piece of shit smearing. If it weren’t so evil, I could almost admire it.

Fortunately, most of the commenters on the article have seen through your spin. Apart from some vile, bigoted comments about people on benefits, no one can really see what the supposed problem is in this (non) story – and this is Daily Mail readers we’re talking about. Maybe there’s some hope for us after all…

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How “87000” glassing injuries a year gave the neopros a bit of a headache

We had a bit of fun yesterday over the latest hysterical media circus around the dangers of drinking.

The Home Office have employed a design agency to come up with a new, safer beer glass in an attempt to reduce violent attacks with broken glasses in pubs.
The most important bit first: the design agency claim to have come up with a glass that looks the same as a normal beer glass, feels the same, and costs the same for pubs to buy, but has a laminate coating that means the glass will not shatter into shards if broken. Here’s what it looks like when dropped:

And here’s a link to a BBC video of how it works.

This is a clever move – when the initiative was announced back in September they scared us with the prospect of banning glass from pubs. Newspapers pronounced the ‘death of the pint glass’ and its replacement with some crappy plastic/polycarbonate thing that would probably be the wrong shape and have pictures of flowers on it to calm everyone down. So if this new glass is everything it’s cracked up to be (sorry), and if the laminate coating doesn’t impact upon the flavour, aroma or carbonation of the beer, you’d have to be a bit of a mental to think that it’s not a good idea.
So what’s the problem?

The problem is the epidemic of broken beer glass assaults that this new design is going to help solve. The money and attention given to this initiative is necessary, we are told, because of the sheer number of assaults, the terrible injuries they do, and of course the cost of all this to the NHS and society at large.

The Times tells us that ” Last year 85,000 people were attacked with glasses, leaving many scarred for life.” The BBC agrees, reporting that “Nearly 87,000 injuries are caused by glass attacks each year in England and Wales, according to the Home Office. Many more are hurt as a result of accidents.” The Mail tells us there are “around 87,000 violent incidents involving glassware each year, which costs an annual estimate of £100m in NHS, police and court costs.” The Telegraph goes further, with “Up to 1,000 youngsters a week suffer serious facial injuries in drunken assaults with many left scarred for life”, and that “Treating such injuries costs the NHS £2.7 billion a year”.

Pretty conclusive, right? So where does this 85,000-87,000 figure come from?
I spent an hour yesterday trying to find it somewhere. But the only Home Office figure I could find was 5,000 – a figure quite different from that quoted in every single newspaper report that covered the story. But the newspapers clearly said that 87,000 was a Home Office figure.
What was going on?
When I couldn’t, I asked my followers on Twitter to help me. The results they brought back speak volumes about how anti-alcohol scare stories are being spread.
Melissa Cole phoned the home office and was told that the figure was 5000 when the initiative was announced, by had leapt to 87000 in the intervening months. Given that alcohol-related crime is down, and that violent attacks of any kind are down 33% over the last 12 years (none of the newspapers seemed to find this relevant either), that seems unlikely.
@junklight went back to the Telegraph story and found that, even though the headline claimed 1000 people a week were scarred by glass attacks only 5000 of these attacks took place every year. Skipping over the physics-defying possibility that every single glass attack somehow results in scarring injuries to ten people, the Telegraph goes on to quote a figure of 80,000 ‘threats’ as well as the 5000 actual attacks to get to that 85,000 figure.
Peter Haydon of Meantime Brewing was at the press launch for the new glass and asked where the figure came from. He was told by the Home Office representative there that 87k was the total number of alcohol-related assaults, and that the number involving glassware was actually 5,000.
@Iamreddave found a home office report on violent crime and worked out some stats from that. This data gives a total figure of 2164000 assaults of any kind in the Uk, and in a different charts says that bottles or broken glass are involved in 4% of all assaults. Divide the total, and you get 86560.
So looking at it, I’d suggest Red Dave is right about where the 87,000 figure comes from. The trouble with that is that it relates to ALL assaults of any kind with any glass or bottle, anywhere – and yet the media is claiming every single one of these assaults is someone with a broken pint glass in a pub.
Elsewhere in those Home Office tables, there’s a figure for all violent crime ‘in or around pubs’, and that figure is 623000 assaults. Here it claims glasses or bottles were used in 10% of all assaults – which gives you a figure of 62,300.
Another antineopro blogger with a source close to the action confirmed to me last night that the official Home Office figure is 5,500 reported assaults, but that there are another 37,000 that go unreported. As he points out, if they’re unreported, how do they know?
In other words, this is a news story that is based upon a complete and utter fabrication.
Here are some real facts:
  • The £2.7 billion figure quoted as the cost of glassing accidents to society is actually the estimated cost of ALL alcohol related conditions treated by the NHS, according to the NHS.
  • NHS data shows that the other figure – £100 million – is the cost of ALL glass-related injuries treated by the NHS, accidental or otherwise, alcohol-related or not.
  • The Hospital Episode Statistics from the NHS list all external causes of hospital admissions. In 2009 it treated 10413 for unspecified ‘contact with sharp glass’ and a further 5226 people for injuries sustained by an ‘assault by a sharp object’. The former covers every single accident involving glasses, the latter includes knife injuries etc. The true number of beer glass-related injuries is buries somewhere within one or both these figures and is therefore clearly much smaller than we are being led to believe. It’s not clear why the ‘many’ of the Times‘ 85,000 who are ‘scarred for life’, or the Telegraph’s ‘1000 a week’ who receive horrific glassing injuries, are not going to hospital to have these injuries seen to.
  • To put this in context, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reports that 40,000 people are injured in accidents in the pub. So should we ban pubs then? Hardly – people might go home instead, and that’s far more dangerous – 100,000 people injure themselves each year trying to assemble furniture, and last year there were 5310 accidents involving trousers.

Home Office data shows that 2% of all pub-goers are involved in any kind of assault each year. 43% of these assaults are described as ‘grabbing or pushing’. Only 16% of assaults result in cuts of any kind. Around two thirds of victims in alcohol-related assaults describe themselves as being affected ‘not at all’ or ‘just a little’, with around 15% affected ‘quite a lot’ and 15% ‘very much’. Only 4-10% involve glasses or bottles, The vast majority involve fists, feet or blunt instruments.

So why such a huge focus on the pint glass? Why has the government spent so much time and money on something that, while horrific for those exposed to it, affects fewer people than those hurting themselves trying to put together a crappy IKEA wardrobe?
Now we’ve established that those are actual figures, and that no one in the media or the Home Office seems to know what this 87,000 figure is or where it came from, and that 87,000 is actually sixteen times higher than the REAL Home Office figure, go back and read those newspaper quotes on stats again. And get angry. Get very angry.
Just don’t get angry enough to glass anyone.

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An open letter to Frank Dobson MP regarding his comments on drinkers

Dear Frank Dobson

I’m just listening to you speak on Decision Time, Radio 4, broadcast on 27th January.

You’ve just claimed – and I’m quoting your words exactly here – that “heavy drinkers cause a vast amount of disorder, get involved in sexual assaults, get involved in accidents and are a major nuisance with loutish behaviour.”

As a heavy drinker myself, I find your comments astonishingly offensive. I have never been involved – even in my youth – in any of the behaviour you describe above, and neither have any of my friends. You are quite clearly implying that if I drink, I am more likely to assault someone violently or sexually.

Your failure to specify ‘some’ or ‘a minority of’ drinkers, or to qualify your claims in any other way, means you are quite clearly claiming that ANYONE who drinks heavily is more likely to carry out such an assault. Having studied NHS and ONS data closely (I’d recommend you do the same) I know for a fact that there is no proof of this. While those who are already prone to sexual or violent assault may well have a drink before carrying out an attack, you are making a grave and slanderous error by implying that alcohol itself makes people more likely to commit such an attack. You are wilfully confusing correlation with causation.

On behalf of myself and the vast majority of drinkers who consume a legal drug that in the vast majority of cases enhances and benefits social interaction rather than damaging it, I demand an apology from you for this appalling slur on our characters, and suggest you check the facts before you open your mouth on this topic again.

As a beer writer, I’ll be copying this email in various channels and urging my many law-abiding, respectable readers to make their feelings known to you in a similar fashion.


Pete Brown

Write to Frank at –
Frank Dobson MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AARing Frank on –
020 7219 4452 or 020 7219 5840Fax Frank on –
020 7219 6956Email Frank on