Tag: answering the neo-prohibitionists

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This week’s dose of neopro distortion and lies

Look, I don’t want to keep banging this drum. But the media assault is now a constant bombardment.

Today’s (or rather yesterday’s) villains are the Daily Telegraph, with the story “Children drinking more than adult safe levels, official figures show.” Thanks to Jeff Pickthall for sending me the article and for finding the actual data – he’s very bullish about stuff like this.
Nowhere in the Telegraph article does it give you an actual percentage figure for the number of children who are doing what the headline claims they are doing. By any conceivable standards, that’s just poor reporting. Incompetently poor. So why a professional journalist would do such a thing?
Before we answer that, it’s important to say that the data seems reliable, with one caveat: it’s a survey of 11-15 year olds, and there’s a pretty huge difference between the attitudes, habits and behaviour of an 11 year-old and those of a 15 year-old. Sure, you’ve got to create your data breaks somewhere, but the Telegraph subhead about “Children as young as eleven are drinking two bottles of wine a week” is pretty disingenuous when you don’t have a breakdown of ages within the group. If 63% of all 11-15 year olds have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, I’m guessing that figure is several times higher for 15 year olds than for 11 year olds. You simply cannot draw the conclusion from the data available that any child as young as eleven is drinking as much as the Telegraph claims. They may well be. But the data as it’s presented does NOT say that they are.
(By the way – if it seems tedious that I keep referring to 11-15 year olds, it’s because that’s the age group of the survey – there’s quite a difference between ‘children’ – which is what the Telegraph are claiming the story is – and 11-15 year olds – the oldest third of all children.)
But whatever, it’s still all under-age drinking, right? Which is of course wrong (because Liam Donaldson said so, without any research or data to back up his personal belief).
So what does the “official data” referred to by the Telegraph actually say? Unsurprisingly, even a cursory look suggests quite a different picture from the one the newspaper paints:
  • The percentage of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk FELL from 55% in 2006 to 52% in 2008
  • The percentage of 11-15 year-olds who have drunk in the last week FELL from 21% in 2006 to 18% in 2008
  • The AVERAGE alcohol consumption for 11-15 year olds who have drunk alcohol is between 13 and 16 units – so not higher than safe limits for adults at all then. And as that’s an average of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk (52%), simple maths tells you that the average for ALL 11-15 year olds must be half that – around 7-8 units.
  • Why focus on the North East? Because that’s the region where 11-15 year olds have drunk more than anywhere else. It’s not typical of the country as a whole. 63% of 11-15 year olds have drunk alcohol there, compared with only 39% in London.
  • The Telegraph correctly reports that ‘more than one in four’ 11-15 year olds in the North East have drunk in the last week. It doesn’t report that in London, this figure is only 12%. Everywhere else, it’s between the two.
  • In terms of average weekly consumption, girls marginally exceed the safe limit for women in five out of nine regions, by an amount that is within the standard margin of error quoted by statisticians. For example, in West Midlands girls drink an average of 14.2 units a week, with a standard range of error of 1.27, meaning they could be as much as 15.9 or as little as 12.5.
  • In no area of the country do boys drink an average of more than 21 units – the recommended limit for men. The Telegraph headline is therefore factually inaccurate on yet another count. In the body of the article it states where teenage girls drink too much. It doesn’t mention the figures for teenage boys because they don’t fit with the story the newspaper is fabricating – so let me say once again, IN NO REGION OF THE COUNTRY ARE 11-15 YEAR OLD BOYS DRINKING MORE THAN THE ‘SAFE’ LIMITS FOR ADULT MEN.

The headline “Children drinking more than adult safe levels” clearly suggests that the typical or average child is doing so. The “official data” emphatically shows that this is NOT the case, and also shows – like all other recent data on the subject – that under-age drinking is declining, something the Telegraph does not see fit to mention at all.

Here is a serious and incredibly well-respected newspaper deliberately distorting NHS data to create a story that is significantly more alarming than the truth. The sub-editors have taken a story the journalist has already distorted, and written a headline and sub-head that is simply not true on several counts.
Why? Do they have their own agenda? Or are they just resorting to cheap, tabloid-style sensationalism? Anyone know?

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A tiny example of why the fight against the neopros is not futile

Look, that change of subject is coming soon I promise – I’ve got an IPA and fish and chip matching lunch later today – but I’ve got to tell you this.

Yesterday I had an off-the-record email chat with the BBC News website. I can’t go into details but I can confirm that their misleading reporting of “alcohol kills 40,000 a year” and “drinking costs the economy £55bn a year” has been amended in existing articles and will not appear as ‘fact’ again unless a lot more proof emerges that they are, in fact, facts. (The death figure is now quoted as an ‘estimate’ and the £55bn figure has been replaced.)
Please do challenge distorted reporting where you see it – I’ve gone to such great lengths to put all this data at your disposal so you can do this with authority if you feel the urge.
Some media outlets do have an anti-drink agenda of their own.
Others just print what they think will sell newspapers.
But many simply have no reason to disbelieve data sent to them from a supposedly reliable source, and have neither the time nor the space to mount their own thorough analysis.
As with when the Mail suddenly cut many of the false statements from a piece last year, our feedback can make a difference – to online news at least.

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Answering the neo-prohibitionists – a series disclaimer

I’m sure even the most ardent fans of my neopro myth-busting posts would agree it’s time we talked about something else. But just before I leave the topic for a while, I need to be candid and restate my disclaimers around this whole area.

I’ve had a few comments over the past week or so suggesting that I’m riding this too hard, that I’m perhaps in denial about the real health and social perils of alcohol abuse. These comments come from people like Alan and Matt, people I like and really respect, so they deserve a full and frank response.
I can assure you that I’m not in denial about alcohol abuse. It has touched my life, and I’m keenly aware of the effect it has on others. I don’t for one second seek to deny that there is a problem that affects a significant number of people. I feel deeply ambivalent about putting the following out into the blogosphere, but I feel I need to help explain where I’m coming from.
Two points:
Firstly, a close friend of mine trained as a doctor, and about fifteen years ago was working regular Friday night shifts in A&E. They soon realised they were stitching the same people back together every week. This led to feelings of futility and despair, which in turn led to clinical depression, which in turn led to a serious suicide attempt. Fortunately, that person survived, but after a spell in an institution they gave up the career they had trained seven years for. The person is OK now.
Secondly, I grew up very close to someone who is a chronic alcoholic. That person is still in my life today. I’ve had therapy to deal with how their behaviour has affected me, with the guilt I feel every time that person gets so drunk they can’t speak and piss themselves, to come to terms with the fact that it’s their decision, and there is nothing I can do to affect it. I have witnessed at close hand how alcohol can destroy lives, and I fucking hate it – it’s destroyed their life; it’s scarred mine. This is why I’m vigilant about my own drinking.
So why am I here, criticising people who seemingly only want to prevent tragedies like these happening?
Several reasons.
Firstly, because having witnessed it close up, I know that when people step up to fight alcohol abuse, they go for the wrong targets. People don’t drink harmfully because alcohol is there, or because it’s cheap, or because it’s advertised. Restricting the availability of alcohol won’t help alcoholics. These people live for alcohol – it’s the only thing they care about. Make it expensive and they’ll go without food, sell their house, Christ, they’d sell their fucking kids for a drink. Prohibit it altogether and they’ll drink meths, or nail varnish remover, or after shave.
Alcoholics drink not because it’s there, or cheap, or tastes nice, but because they have deeper trauma and/or unhappiness in their lives. Even if you were studying this at GCSE level, if you look at it scientifically, if availability/pricing/advertising of booze caused problem drinking, then everyone exposed to it would be more likely to problem drink. But most people in theUK are drinking less. A minority are drinking to harmful levels. And as far as I can tell, no one is studying that minority in detail and asking what it is about them that makes them different from the majority.
It’s easy to blame the availability of booze. And it is shameful that problem drinkers are not being researched in a way that can highlight what it is that’s different about them that makes them more likely to problem drink.
People drink to excess because they are unhappy, because they feel empty inside, because they are lonely, because they are stressed, because they have shit jobs being bullied in call centres and alcoholic oblivion is the only escape they can see. Why is no one helping them? Because it’s a bit more complicated than just blaming drink, that’s why.
Secondly, I’m doing this because for the vast majority of people, drink is an innocent pleasure with minimal health risks beyond a few extra pounds or the odd hangover. My father died of smoking-related lung cancer when he was 58 and I was 27. I’ve read the science, and I know that there is a direct linear relationship between smoking and ill health – every single cigarette you smoke causes you damage. Drink is not the same. There are healthy levels of alcohol consumption.
My close quarters witnessing of the destruction alcoholism can cause makes me more keenly aware of the benefits of moderate consumption, and the stark difference between the two. So it makes me very angry indeed when someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about tars all habitual drinkers with the same brush. And even angrier when newspapers distort the facts even further for nothing more than a sensationalist story.
Thirdly – quite simply, because it needs doing. A quick review of press stories about alcohol over the last week alone will show you how drinking is being demonised and made socially unacceptable. It’s based on lies and distortions. The figures say the problem is not getting any worse – if anything, the situation is improving. No one in the media seems to want to report this truth. No one questions press releases from avowedly anti-drink organisations. My blog posts might seem excessive if you’ve been staying tuned over the last week or so, but they amount to a fart in the face of a hurricane compared to the anti-drink propaganda that’s out there every single day.
In summary then – I know the ill effects of alcohol abuse as well as anyone, and care about them as much as anyone. I’ll never deny that there’s a problem, and am not seeking to do so on this blog.
But if that problem is going to be dealt with effectively, it has to be understood properly. I think the neopros are acting against the interests of the majority of drinkers. But worse, because they are approaching the problem over-simplistically, wilfully distorting the evidence, and confusing personal beliefs with real health issues, I don’t think their antics will do anything to help the people who really need helping. And that is just shameful.
That’s why I’m doing this.
And I promise my next post will be about Brew Dog or IPA or hops or something.

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Answering the neo-prohibitionists, 10 of 10: “Binge drinking has been made worse by 24 hour licensing”

It’s been a along haul over the last week or so – about 12,000 words. So if you’re still reading – thank you! Normal bipolar service between chatty and ranty will resume from now on.This last one is light on stats. We covered most of the major debunking in posts 1-7, really. But I saved this topic till last because it’s one I care about very strongly, and get quite angry over.And so does the HSC – their language around this topic becomes less objective, more passionate – and that just makes me even angrier. The fact that everyone gets irrational over the issue means debate over it exposes everything we’ve talked about so far in one neo-prohibitionist nutshell.

A bit of background

Say what you like about the Labour Government and its nannying tendencies, but it needs to be pointed that Parliament is not the same thing as Government, and the HSC report is a parliamentary report, not a governmental one.Before the Licensing Act of 2003, UK licensing laws were a product of wartime restrictions to prevent munitions workers getting pissed and not turning up to work. Society has changed just a tad since 1918 but licensing laws had not. The spirit behind the Act was to liberalise licensing restrictions for the benefit of everyone, and at the same time crack down on drunken anti-social behaviour, and alcohol abuse generally.Leaving aside the practicalities of implementation, that to me sounds like an extraordinarily enlightened plan – relaxing restrictions on the innocent many, coming down harder on the guilty few. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s a strategy that has worked very well in Australia – a country with similar issues around drink to the UK.The Act was implemented in 2005 – with the introduction of :

  • Greater flexibility of licensing hours (with the theoretical possibility of an establishment being able to sell alcohol 24 hours a day)
  • the transfer of licensing powers to local authorities (a decision that in principle is hailed even by the HSC and its supporters)

My view on liberalised licensing

This is not scientific, merely observational. Writing Three Sheets to the Wind, I visited 13 countries. Twelve of them had more relaxed licensing regimes than the UK did, and seemed to have more a relaxed drinking culture too. In the one country I visited that was more restricted than Britain (Sweden) I saw drunken behaviour at the border with Denmark that would make Nottingham on a Friday night look like Sunday afternoon tea round at Liam Donaldson’s house.As I say, not scientific, quite possibly correlation rather than causation, but certainly consistent – I could walk into a bar in Belgium at 2am and be served an 8% beer, and everyone in there was chatting pleasantly. On a Friday night out in Madrid that ended at 3am, the only drunk people we saw were an English hen party.Much has been made of the comparison between Britain and ‘continental Europe’, but it wasn’t confined to those countries: I walked into an Irish pub just off Times Square at half past midnight and was served a beer in a pleasant atmosphere.And then there’s Australia, a country that shares much of the UK’s genetic make-up as well as its fondness for drink. For much of the 20th century, it endured pubs closing at 6pm and the ‘six o’ clock swill’, when people drank as fast as they could from when they got out of work until they were thrown out of the pub, and spent the rest of the evening puking, pissing and fighting in the streets.Now Australia has a licensing system whereby pubs can nominate any 2-hour period in 24 when they close, and can open the rest of the day round. They also have effective campaigns against drunk driving, and strictly enforced laws about not serving people who are already drunk. Pubs close when business dries up, and people go home on a night when they feel like it, not when the pubs shut. Anything resembling the six o’ clock swill, which used to happen in every town, every night, is extremely rare.At the very least, this all suggests there is no direct causal link whatsoever between liberalized licensing laws and binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. At best, it does suggest relaxed licensing leads to relaxed drinking – and Prof. Dwight Heath of Brown University in the US has research far more robust than my whistle-stop global tour which suggests this is true.So four-and-a-bit years after the introduction of liberalized licensing laws un the UK, how is it doing?

The HSC and media view on liberalised licensing

I’m taking issue with one paragraph from the report summary:“The DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] has shown extraordinary naivety in believing the Licensing Act 2003 would bring about ‘civilised cafe culture’. In addition, the Act has failed to enable the local population to exercise adequate control of a licensing and enforcement regime which has been too feeble to deal with the problems it has faced.”The Select Committee ReportThe Guardian (8/1/09) in turn refers to “the failure of the government’s strategy to tackle problem of drink-related violence and deaths”, quotes the HSC report as saying the government response to the ‘rise’ in binge drinking as ranging from “the non-existent to the ineffectual”, and takes as a matter of fact “the failure of the government’s strategy to tackle the escalating problems of drink-related violence and deaths”.On what basis? Well, let’s look at the evidence.

How have things changed since 2005?

  • As the HSC report tell us itself, late nights in centres, “the overall volume of crime and disorder had with local variations remained stable”
  • Contrary to what the Daily Mail tells us, “pubs stayed open on average only an extra 27 minutes”, and as the 9th post in this series points out, only a tiny fraction of pubs have 24 hour licences
  • As the first post points in this series out, alcohol consumption has declined. It’s declined even more rapidly in the on-trade:
  • The number of pubs has declined steeply:
  • As the second post points out, binge drinking is either stable or declining, so far as we can tell from the data.
  • As the third post points out, the number of hazardous drinkers is static or declining, so far as we can tell from the data, and the key ‘problem group’ of drinkers – 16-24 year old males – shows an in arguable decline.
  • As the sixth post points out, alcohol relate arrests, cautions and convictions are falling
  • As the eighth post points out, underage drinking is falling
  • Casualties from alcohol-related road accidents have continues to fall:
  • Awareness of units

    With reference to current awareness campaigns about the dangers of alcohol, the Report states “Unfortunately, these campaigns are poorly funded and ineffective at conveying key messages.”The Select Committee provides no hard data to back up this claim – I’m certain the advertising agencies who created the campaigns have detailed research on this, but of course the HSC doesn’t listen to advertising agencies.The nearest proxy I’ve been able to find in terms of readily available data is stuff on unit awareness. The percentage of people who are aware of alcohol units is high and consistent, and the percentage who have seen alcohol unit labeling is growing:

    Is seeing it the same as understanding it? Not at all. But here’s some more data that shows more people are aware of how many units they are drinking:

    Cafes versus pubs

    The government was guilty of nothing more than a really bad PR spin when they kept referring to a ‘continental style café culture’ on British streets as a result of the act. That such a culture has failed to appear is not down to a failure of licensing reform: it’s down to the fact that we don’t have any continental style cafes. We don’t have town squares where you can sit outside and watch the world go past. We have French style bistros, but they’re more restaurants and they close at 10pm like they always did. The British don’t do cafes; we do pubs. So what’s happened in the pub? Again, on personal experience only, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Our own ‘eleven o’clock swill’ has dissipated, and you don’t see people speed drinking as last orders approaches because if you want to carry on drinking, you can. This is just personal observation of what it’s like inside a pub, but the HSC report uses a great deal of personal observation (but only from people it already agrees with) to draw its conclusions. As I’ve been inside a pub on a Friday night quite regularly since 2005, and they clearly haven’t, I’d argue that in this instance alone my personal observation is more valid than theirs. One of the main aims of licensing reform was to spread the incredible congestion and resultant tension in town centres when everyone was thrown out of the pub together at 11.15. The police confirm that, although they have to patrol the streets for longer, alcohol related problems have dispersed through the night, and are less extreme at this critical time. Critics point out that problems have increased dramatically between 3am and 6am. Yes, but that’s because there are now some people on the streets at that time, whereas there used to be no one on the streets at that time. It’s increased form a very small base.


    All the evidence above suggests that Britain’s drink problem – while still undeniable and in need of addressing – is either stable or declining. It takes years to effect a cultural and habitual change around drinking. Nevertheless, since the introduction of relaxed licensing laws (and the commensurate crackdown on problem drinking by police) every useful measure suggests our relationship with alcohol is becoming marginally less problematic. This may be correlation, it may be causation. But which ever one it is, there are no grounds whatsoever to refer to the government’s strategy to tackle alcohol-related problems as “naïve”, a “failure”, “non-existent” or “ineffectual”. To do so implies the authors of the report have been ingesting something far more potent than booze. And yet their warped, hallucinogenic view has become fact in the British media.

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    More hilarity with statistics

    So according to our neoprohibitionist friends at BBC news, the Scots drink 46 bottles of vodka a year, each.

    It’s a shocking statistic – an average of almost a bottle of vodka a week for every single person aged over 18. But is it as bad as it sounds?
    I’ve checked the calculation – 12 litres of pure alcohol per person – the level of sales from which this figure is derived = 40 x 750ml bottles of alcohol at 40% – not 46 bottles then, but 40. They also claim this is the equivalent of 537 pints of beer or 130 bottles of wine. I did my own calculation based on 4% beer and 12.5% wine and got the same figure, so I’m obviously doing my calculations the same way they are. I checked all leading brands of vodka and they’re 40% ABV. So the people working out this figure are either pretending vodka is less strong than we all think it is, in order to deliberately bump up the number of bottles, or they’ve got their sums wrong. If they’re going to alarm us like this, you’d think they could at least get their fucking maths right.
    40 bottles a year still sounds like a lot though. And this time, I have no figures to contradict what’s being said here, but let’s look at it more closely from a few different angles:
    • If it was as bad as it is being made to sound, Scotland wouldn’t function as a country. It gives the impression that every adult is a harmful drinker. And while Scotland does have issues with drink, the country is not collapsing.
    • The BBC report claims that this figure is the equivalent to every adult drinking an average of 26 units of alcohol a week. Suddenly, that doesn’t sound quite as bad. But I checked this calculation too – 40 x 750ml bottles of 40% ABV liquid = a round 1200 units of alcohol a year. Divided by 52 weeks, that actually comes to 23.1 units a week – not 26 as is claimed in the piece. The 537 pints of 4% beer gives you an average of 23.5 units a week, and the 130 bottles of 12.5% wine gives you a weekly 23.25. So once again, the people making the calculations can’t use a fucking calculator properly. An average of 23.1 units a week for every adult? OK, it’s still over government guidelines, but not by much. As an average it does mean many people a drinking quite a bit more than they should, but not close to harmful levels. Oh and hang on…
    • These figures are based on alcohol sold in Scotland – just over 50 million litres last year. What is Scotland famous for? Vodka? No, whisky. So why is the headline about vodka? Why does it not say ‘Scots drink 40 bottles of whisky each every year’? Why not? Because if it were, you might make the link between alcohol sales in Scotland and tourism. Tourism is worth £4.2 billion to the Scottish economy, employing 8% of the total workforce. And whisky is a massive part of that. One million foreign tourists visit Scotch whisky distilleries every year, spending a total of £25 million – and rising (source: ScotlandWhisky). I can’t make the calculations, but I’m betting a big chunk of that £25 million is spent on bottles of whisky. And that’s just what these tourists are spending on distillery tours – what else are they spending in bars, pubs and restaurants on alcohol, while on their holidays? And total annual tourist numbers to Scotland come in at 2.5 million – and rising (source: Scottish government). It’s incredible that two in five tourists come to Scotland to visit distilleries, but a huge chunk of those who don’t visit distilleries still drink. Whatever their total consumption it’s going to account for a sizeable chunk of the 50 million litres of pure alcohol sold in Scotland every year. But every single dram those 2.5 million tourists drink, every single bottle the 1 million distillery visitors buy at the end of their tours, is being included in the figure for what the indigenous Scottish population puts away. In the piece, rising alcohol consumption in Scotland is blamed on cheap prices – the fact that tourism is increasing year on year is not considered.

    So, another non-story then.

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    Answering the neo-prohibitionists, 9 of 10: “Pubs are a problem”

    This post is a little different from the others, in that the HSC report doesn’t really attack pubs implicitly. In fact, it suggests that minimum pricing would help traditional pubs at the expense of off-licences. Some commenters have suggested this is a cynical ploy to divide the pro-drinks lobby. I won’t give my thoughts on that here.But while the HSC lets pubs off the hook on the surface, there are two reasons to keep defence of pubs to the fore.The first is that the HSC report recommends the urgent introduction of the Mandatory Code for pubs. As well as suggesting bans on happy hour type promotions – which many responsible drinkers would at least sympathise with – it contains more worrying proposals such as the introduction of CCTV in pubs, and a broader role for police in pubs. At best, the Code means more red tape for licensees and a huge administrative cost to implement, when many landlords are already on their knees. At worst, it could fundamentally change the unique character of the British pub. Further ideas that have been discussed (though to the best of my knowledge, not seriously proposed) include:

    • Limiting live music in pubs to be no louder than the volume of a hairdryer
    • Having two police officers stationed inside the door of busy pubs – with the publican having to pay for them
    • Insisting that every drink must be poured in a legally approved measure so people know exactly how much they’ve had to drink – which would make it illegal to top up a new glass from an open bottle, for example.
    • Insisting that some pubs use plastic glasses at all times

    The anti-alcohol lobby will continue to suggest proposals such as these in its fight against the pub, so its important that we defend the pub against them.Secondly, the broader anti-alcohol lobby regularly has pubs in its sights. Most pictures illustrating binge drinking stories in newspapers and illustrated with pictures of pubs. Attacks on “24 hour drinking” invariably suggest that pubs are open all night.While most alcohol consumed in the UK is now bought off-trade, the pub is still the symbolic home of the drinker. Eric Ilsley MP told the SIBA conference in 2008 about a Radio 4 story focusing on children as young as ten being admitted to hospital with drink related problems.When the interviewer asked the health expert what could be done about this, the ‘expert’ replied, “Well, we’ve got to get tougher with pubs,” as if children of ten were happily nursing pints at the bar.So while some progress is being in advancing the image of the pub, it is still a scapegoat in the eyes of right-wing tabloids at least. This series of posts is intended to provide ammunition to combat all the usual attacks on the beer and pub industry – not just the HSC report – so I wanted to include the following data here.

    24 hour licensing – the truth

    “24 hour drinking” is a myth that has become true by simple repetition in the media. So here are the facts.
    The number of 24 hour licences issued so far is 7178. Of these, 22% have gone to supermarkets, the rest 5600 – to the on-trade. There are 105,000 on-licensed premises in the UK, which means that 5.3% of UK on-licences have 24 hour licences. The vast majority of these have gone to hotel bars, chiefly top clear up the ambiguity around staying open late to serve hotel guests. Only 12% – or 861 licences – have gone to pubs, clubs and bars. A tiny, fraction of pubs have 24 hour licences. The truth of “24 hour drinking is, according to a review by the Department of Health, that pubs on average stay open a while 27 minutes later than they used to. The image painted in the media of pubs servoing drunks around the clock is a complete fabrication.

    On versus off-trade

    Not all of you are going to like or agree with this, but it’s a point that has to be made – and it’s a point on which I agree with the HSC! I’m not arguing that supermarkets are entirely to blame for the drinking problem that does exist in the UK (whatever the true size of that problem may be). And I’m not necessarily arguing in favour of minimum pricing. But I would argue that it is wrong to sell alcohol below cost price. Several bloggers have been angered by the whole “alcohol cheaper than water” claim, but I’ve seen the documents that show this has on occasion happened. And whatever your views on that, it’s simple to calculate the total VAT and Customs & Excise duty on a given container of alcohol. It is common to see booze sold in supermarkets for less than this amount. I’m sorry, but selling below cost price strikes me as irresponsible. But the main point I want to make is one of principle, not price. In their evidence to the HSC, representatives of big supermarket chains repeated the line they always used when questioned on the ethics of selling alcohol below cost price: Sandra Gidley: Why do supermarkets sell alcohol at below the cost of the duty that is on it from time to time as a loss leader? Mr Kelly: As we said earlier, we are in a highly competitive market competing for customers and we will sell sometimes loss leaders across a whole range. Sandra Gidley: Do you think it is right to do this with alcohol though? Do you think it is socially responsible? Mr Kelly: We are in a highly competitive market. I’m bringing this up, remember, to defend pubs. Supermarkets are doing remarkably well, taking an ever-increasing share of British total expenditure. Pubs are closing at a rate of 52 a week. If anyone knows what a competitive market is, it’s the publican. But just imagine if a Publican, or even a big PubCo, did a promotion of shots for 30p and when questioned on the morality of it, shrugged and replied, “We’re in a competitive market.” They simply wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. But supermarkets are. I’m not saying the carnage in the pub market is all the supermarket’s fault. I’m unhappy at having to write something potentially divisive in this series of posts. But alcohol is an intoxicating drug and I believe anyone who sells it has a duty of care to their customers to recognise that and act upon it. Supermarkets do not. Pubs – not all pubs, but the vast majority – do recognise this. So in summary, there are two points to this post really:

    • Pubs are responsible retailers of alcohol and are often unfairly demonized. The myth of “24 hour drinking” is a classic example of this.
    • Supermarkets need to publicly acknowledge the ethical responsibility that comes with selling alcohol. By simply justifying their behaviour with regard to price they are failing to do so. This does a grave disservice to the entire alcohol industry, and opens everyone up for attack.

    I’m all for working together and uniting the industry with one voice, as these posts hopefully suggest. But this requires an acknowledgement of the responsibilities the industry has.

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    Answering the neo-prohibitionists, 8 of 10: “Alcohol advertising/promotion must be tightly regulated because it encourages under-age drinking.”

    The HSC Report states: “The current system of controls on alcohol advertising and promotion is failing the young people it is intended to protect. Both the procedures and the scope need to be strengthened.”

    Children and alcohol – the truth

    The report presents evidence of an increase in alcohol consumption among teenagers. As usual, they present the data selectively, cutting out anything that does not support their case. So here are some Office of National Statistics numbers about kids and booze. In England, among pupils aged 11 to 15:

    • In 2006, 45% of pupils said they had never had a proper alcoholic drink (a whole drink and not just a sip), an increase compared to 39% in 2001
    • In 2007, 20% reported drinking alcohol in the week prior to interview, down from 26% in 2001

    So alcohol consumption among children is falling, not rising as we are regularly told. But even if it was rising (which it isn’t) how strong is the ink between underage drinking and exposure to alcohol advertising?

    The link to advertising – or rather, the lack of one

    When exploring the link between advertising and underage drinking, the main study the HSC Report refers to is discussed as follows: “The RAND Corporation’s study, Early Adolescent Exposure to Alcohol Advertising and its Relationship to Underage Drinking (2007) found that children exposed to high levels of alcohol advertising were more likely both to drink and to intend to drink than those with low levels of exposure.” So I Googled this study and found out two interesting things about it. The first is that research took place in two schools in South Dakota. How relevant this makes it to UK youth is a question for someone better qualified than me. But even if it was two schools in South Yorkshire, I would still question the validity of applying it to British youth generally. The second interesting thing is this. This study into two South Dakota schools, which the HSC claims proves a link between exposure to advertising and intention to drink, says the following in its conclusion: “Causal effects are uncertain” Let’s go through that again. Here’s what the HSC says about the RAND research: “[It] found that children exposed to high levels of alcohol advertising were more likely both to drink and to intend to drink than those with low levels of exposure.” And here’s what RAND itself says about the RAND research: “Causal effects are uncertain” The HSC also relied heavily on a detailed study from Sheffield University. The Sheffield Study is where they get their justification for minimum pricing from. So what does the Sheffield Study say about the dangers of drinks advertising? It says there is “No case for a ban… the evidence was too weak to come to a conclusion.” Here are a couple more quotes on the subject: “In terms of interventions, codes and bans are typically designed to protect young people and any effects of bans on adults remain largely unknown. In practice, only France has introduced a comprehensive ban but no convincing evaluation was carried out.” There is an ongoing methodological debate on how advertising effects can and should be investigated and there is also a need for further research to establish whether advertising definitely influences consumption.” Just like the RAND study, no causal effect was established between advertising and under-age drinking. It’s clear from reading the testimony given by the author of the Sheffield Study to the HSC that they set out trying to establish such a link. They are specifically looking for evidence of a link. And they can’t find one.

    Awareness versus consumption

    In the absence of any evidence of a causal link between exposure to advertising and propensity to drink under-age, the HSC falls back on demonstrating that children are aware of alcohol: the implication being that if they are aware it exists, then by definition they want to drink it. Discussing a survey of 13 year olds: “Nearly half were found to own alcohol branded merchandise and, when shown masked prompts, the vast majority could name the leading brands: Carling (95%), Smirnoff (93%) and WKD (91%). Research conducted as part of the NPRI study illustrates the extent to which teenagers in the UK are aware of alcohol, alcohol brands and related communications.” Again, there is no actual evidence to suggest that awareness means propensity to drink. If you’re a Liverpool or a Celtic fan and have a replica shirt, it probably has a drinks logo on it. Of course children are aware of alcohol – their parents drink it. If men drink moderately in a family setting, their children are bound to notice alcohol brands. And far from being a dangerous thing to do, experts advocate such a drinking occasion as being responsible.

    Believing who you want to believe

    The report bases its conclusions on expert testimony. It listened to testimony from experts in the advertising industry, which said alcohol advertising didn’t tempt children to drink, and it dismissed this testimony. It then listened to testimony from health experts, who said advertising did tempt children to drink, and accepted this testimony without question. Without wishing to denigrate the great work health experts do, they are not qualified to judge whether children drink because of advertising or because of something else – this is a completely different field from the one they are trained in. But the HSC don’t let this detail bother them. The HSC analysed documents from the advertising industry. After doing so, Professor Hastings of the Alcohol Health Alliance found that the documents: “Reveal major shortcomings in the current self regulatory codes covering alcohol advertising. Specifically, the codes do not, as they are supposed to, protect young people from alcohol advertising; prevent the promotion of drunkenness and excess; or the linking of alcohol with social and sexual success”, and the HSC concludes in his evidences that “The result is a regulatory system that is impossible to police and vulnerable to exploitation.” Clearly we have to take the ad industry’s testimony with a pinch of salt because they want to make ads. But we also have to take Prof Hastings’ testimony with an equal degree of skepticism. Prof Hastings is the author of a BMA report which calls for a total ban on alcohol advertising. In response to that report, the Advertising Association commissioned an independent study into the effects of alcohol advertising on children. The full report is here and makes very interesting reading, but here is one extract from it: Launching the BMA report, its author Gerard Hastings was questioned by journalists on the lack of evidence to support his claims. Mr Hastings insisted that existing ‘cross-sectional’ and ‘longitudinal’ research provided an evidence base for the case against alcohol marketing. Basham & Luik analyse eleven relevant cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of advertising exposure and recall, and conclude that they do not support claims made by the BMA. Not only are they mostly inconclusive, but some have severe methodological problems. Basham & Luik also claim that the results from the case studies tend to be of marginal significance. Strickland (1982) Alcohol Advertising: orientations and influence, Journal of Advertising 1:307-319 – ‘reducing the amount of advertising for alcoholic beverages is likely to have a negligible impact on the level of consumption among teenagers’. Chen, M. et al (2005) Alcohol advertising: what makes it attractive to youth? Journal of Health Communication 10: 553-565 – ‘it is possible that alcohol advertising influences young people’s drinking beliefs and behaviours, but the opposite also may be true. That is, young people who are predisposed to drinking may be more attentive to and hold more favourable attitudes toward alcohol advertising’. The HSC takes Prof Hastings evidence at face value, without question. Yet it makes no mention of an independent, exhaustive study which casts sever doubt on Prof Hasting’s methodology and conclusions. I worked in advertising for 15 years. Contrary to what Prof Hastings implies, the codes covering advertising explicitly forbid appeal to young people (you’re not allowed to shows anyone who looks under 25 in ads), and do not allow the promotion of drinking to excess, or the linking of alcohol with sexual or social success. I have personally tried to argue to get ads made which we as a team felt did not do these things, but were judged by the industry regulator as potentially doing so, and we have lost the argument – every time. I invite any anti-drink campaigner to create an ad which they think appeals to children, suggests a link between drink and sexual or social success, or promotes excessive drinking, and see if they can get it past the regulators. I would also like them to name examples of ads which have run in the past five years that they believe do any of these things which have not been banned by the regulators. Short of a total ban on TV advertising, it’s difficult to see how regulation could be any tighter – but of course, a total ad ban is exactly what anti-alcohol campaigners want. But the HSC ignores evidence of the effectiveness of current regulation, ignores the lack of evidence in support of their own view, and concludes: “Several of the witnesses to our inquiry disagreed with the drinks industry and regulators. Their argument was that the codes are ineffective because the rules, albeit enforced by the ASA and others are not adequate to protect the young: the quantity rather than the content of advertising has greatest effect. This is particularly true for children. Moreover, advertising has a cumulative effect in the long term—even if sales don’t show immediate response.” “Several of the witnesses disagreed with the drinks industry?” Did they? Oh well, case closed then. Then we get the introduction of this claim about it being quantity of advertising rather than quality. There is no factual basis offered to back up this opinion – it emerges out of the blue towards the end of the section on advertising, but nevertheless makes it into the summary as a key finding – a central plank behind the committee’s recommendations for swingeing curbs on alcohol advertising and promotion.

    In summary

    The HSC says drinking among children is increasing. But recent official figures suggest it is falling. The HSC simply asserts that advertising encourages young people to drink. But there is no evidence of a causal link, despite people looking very hard to try to find one. So they imply that there is a link between awareness of alcohol brands and propensity to drink underage, because they can prove awareness. But there’s no evidence of this either. So after having spent a long time discussing the content of alcohol ads, they then say it’s not the content, but the quantity of it that has an effect. There’s no evidence of this either. So in the end, they disregard testimony from advertising professionals, and simply choose to believe the testimony of people who want alcohol advertising to be banned, say it is damaging to children, but can produce no evidence to back up their assertion.

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    Answering the neo-prohibitionists 7 of 10: “The best way to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol is to reduce overall consumption”

    Here’s what the HSC Report says:

    “There is a good deal of evidence to show that the number of heavy drinkers in a society is directly related to average consumption. Living in a culture which encourages drinking leads more people to drink to excess.”

    “The most effective way to deal with alcohol related ill-health will be to reduce overall consumption.”

    Two key points of rebuttal:

    (i) The HSC’s own data contradicts this assertion

    Alcohol consumption in the UK is declining. Binge drinking is declining. Alcohol-related crime is declining. So far, the correlation holds – albeit in the opposite direction to the one the HSC would like to convince you is true. And the key thing in all this – the availability of alcohol in the UK is increasing.

    But alcohol related hospital admissions – even if we question how they are calculated – are still rising, as are deaths by liver cirrhosis (some of which are alcohol related, though not as many as the HSC would like to claim).

    If availability of alcohol is increasing, but people are drinking less, and binge drinking less, but the number of people with alcohol related illnesses is rising, the relationship between overall consumption and alcohol abuse cannot be directly linear.

    And the rising percentage of the UK population that is teetotal (estimates vary from 11% to 25%) suggests that in a time of declining overall consumption, light drinkers are dropping out of the market altogether rather than problem drinkers cutting down.

    Other factors are at work here. There is something in modern society that is causing a minority to drink to excess even as the majority cut down on their drinking. We can all speculate on what those other factors might be, and I’ve done so elsewhere, but I want to keep this series of posts as factual as possible.

    Whatever they may be though, these factors are being ignored by the anti-alcohol lobby and not given enough attention by health professionals, which is letting down people who need help. They don’t need to be told not to drink. They need help addressing what is making them turn to drink in the first place.

    (ii) International comparison refutes this assertion

    This keeps coming up in rebuttal to various points the anti-alcohol lobby makes, but seemingly it needs constant repetition. There are countries in Europe with higher per capita alcohol consumption than the UK, and fewer alcohol-related health problems than the UK.

    And work done by Professor Dwight Heath emphatically refutes the notion that a culture that welcomes alcohol is a culture that encourages drinking to excess. Extensive scientific studies around the world (clue: you don’t just look at countries that have a problem. You look at countries that do and countries that don’t and you compare the two to see what’s different) has shown that in countries that are positive towards alcohol, it is integrated into normal society, drinkers are not stigmatised, and drinking is no big deal.

    But in countries that are ambivalent towards alcohol, the stigma also brings with it a mystique. Alcohol is something errant, transgressive, consumed behind closed doors. On the one hand, it has a transgressive allure. On the other, people who drink feel they are already doing something wrong, and the line between moderate and excessive drinking is more blurred.

    The most obvious proof of this point is Scandinavia: Sweden has more restrictive alcohol regulations than Denmark, and has a bigger problem with harmful drinking. In turn, Finland has more restrictive alcohol regulations than Sweden, and has a correspondingly bigger problem with alcohol drinking. There is a linear relationship not between overall consumption and harmful drinking, but between the social unacceptability of alcohol and problem drinking

    The argument about families normalising alcohol with teenagers rather than letting them discover it with friends in an unsupervised, transgressive setting is a strand of this point. It has been dismissed by neo-prohibitionists as a “dangerous myth”. Unfortunately for them, it’s a myth that has a great deal of scientific research behind it.

    In summary

    When you look at the data objectively, there is no straight linear relationship between overall alcohol consumption and propensity to alcohol abuse.

    The best way to reduce alcohol related ill-health is NOT to reduce overall consumption – it’s to identify what’s making a minority of people drink to harmful levels while the majority are drinking less.

    And it’s to normalise alcohol consumption as part of a functional society – the opposite of what the neo-prohibitionists are trying to do.

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    Answering the neo-prohibitionists, 6 of 10: “Alcohol abuse costs the country £55bn a year”

    OK, this might be the longest one – but it gets much snappier after this, I promise.

    (Caveat: like the previous post, in this one I can’t offer a ‘true’ figure. The intention is to raise reasonable doubt about the figures that have been quoted, and how they were arrived at.)

    The BMA and the Health Select Committee cite not one, but two figures for the cost of alcohol to society. The first is £20 billion. The second is £55.1 billion.

    £20bn or £55.1bn? So, er, which is it then?

    The huge discrepancy doesn’t just mean one figure is more likely than the other – you can’t just say “let’s call it £20bn to be conservative then”. It means both figures are suspect.

    Incredibly, the HSC Report seems happy to quite both calculations, simply stating in the Executive Summary, “In 2003 the PM’s Strategy Unit estimated the total cost of alcohol to society to be £20bn; another study in 2007 put the figure at 55bn,” as if the huge discrepancy between them is simply not an issue.

    In any business I’ve worked in, if someone was asked to find the cost of something and came back with two different costs, one almost three times the other, with no recommendation as to which was right, questions would be asked about their ability to do their job.

    But of course, by simply putting both figures out there with no comment whatsoever as to which might be the closest to the truth, the HSC allows the anti-alcohol lobby to simply quote the higher figure.

    Think that’s paranoid?

    In its coverage of the report on the day of its release, the BBC website simply says, “It is estimated alcohol abuse in England and Wales kills 40,000 people and costs the economy £55bn every year.”

    It doesn’t dispute the figure. It doesn’t even mention the lower figure. And so the higher figure simply becomes fact.

    (Rereading that, linking back to my previous post, see also how “alcohol consumption is probably a significant factor in 30 to 40,000 deaths per year” has magically become alcohol “kills 40,000 people” – a colossal misrepresentation of what the HSC Report actually says, even if we were to accept the report’s figures as accurate – which they aren’t.)

    Let’s get out calculators out. Oh hang on, let’s just guess instead

    The £20bn figure was calculated in 2004 by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, and includes:

    • Healthcare ‘Up to’ £1.7bn
    • Alcohol-related crime and public disorder ‘Up to’ £7.3bn
    • Loss of productivity/profitability in workplace ‘Up to’ £6.4bn

    The £55.1bn figures was calculated in 2007 by the National Social Marketing Centre (A Department of Health sponsored research company) and includes:

    • Cost to individuals and families/households (eg loss of income, informal care costs) £21bn
    • Public health services/care services £2.8bn
    • Cost to other public services (eg criminal justice system costs, education and social services costs) £2.1bn
    • Cost to employers (eg absenteeism) £7.3bn
    • Human costs (DALYs)[1] £21.9bn

    The health care cost is at least taken from the studies quoted in the previous post, and needs no further discussion here. 

    Loss of productivity in the workplace is also roughly comparable and consistent.

    But look at the estimated cost of crime. In the lower figure, ‘crime and disorder’ costs come in at £7.3 billion. In the higher figure, ‘costs to other public services’ – which includes social services as well as costs to the criminal justice system – comes in at only a third of that figure, at £2.1bn. I’m sorry, but given that these figures are available to civil servants, such a huge discrepancy between the two casts doubt on the credibility of both reports.

    If we look closer at the higher figure, £42.9 bn – 78% of the total – is made up of intangibles – cost to individuals and families, cost in terms of loss of life or healthy years – that would seem extremely difficult to put an accurate figure on. And that’s before we start to dispute the correlation/causation argument when alcohol is calculated as a factor in hospital admission, crime etc.

    Alcohol and crime

    I haven’t been able to look in detail at every element of these costs, but let’s take alcohol-related crime as one example.

    The Reports claims that “Alcohol-related crime and anti-social behaviour have increased over the last 20 years.”

    However, Home Office data shows that there has been a 41% fall in alcohol related violent incidents since 1995. This data may not be perfect – there’s a huge difference between crime that occurs, crime that’s reported, and crimes that are prosecuted. Critics argue – perhaps rightly – that the police are now deciding not to prosecute alcohol related crimes, but issuing cautions instead. However, home office data shows consistent decline in crimes reported, number of arrests/prosecutions, and number of cautions. The data has its issues. But if you’re going to use the data when it shows an increase, you also have to acknowledge when the same data shows a decrease. The HSC does not.

    And then there’s that old correlation/causation argument again. The HSC says:

    “Examples of offences which are often committed by people under the influence include physical and sexual assault, breach of the peace, criminal damage and other public order offences.”

    Yes, those offences are also examples of offences committed by people not under the influence of alcohol. Your point is?

    Hang on, there’s more:

    “According to the British Crime Survey (BCS) 2005-06, 44 per cent of violent offenders in England and Wales were perceived by their victims to be under the influence of alcohol. This corresponds to a decrease in the number of violent incidents where the victim believed the offender or offenders to be under the influence of alcohol from 1,659,000 in 1995 to 1,029,000 in 2005/06. The offender was judged to be under the influence of alcohol in 54 per cent of incidents of stranger violence, 44 per cent of incidents of acquaintance violence and 21 per cent of incidents of mugging. Eighteen per cent of violent offenders between the age of 10 and 25 reported being under the influence of alcohol only, and three per cent under the influence of drugs and alcohol, at the time of the offence. Thirty-two per cent of young people surveyed reported being under the influence of alcohol when committing criminal damage offences and 27 per cent were under the influence of drugs and alcohol while being involved in vehicle related thefts.”

    There’s so much to attack here:

    ‘perceived by their victims’ to be under the influence of alcohol? How can you tell? Can you be sure when you’re being attacked?

    And you’re admitting that the number of such incidents fell by a third between 1995 and 2006, but don’t deem this worthy of comment?

    18% of 10-25 year old violent offenders admitted being under the influence of alcohol – that seems pretty low, especially given the temptation to use intoxication as an excuse for your actions.

    Overall, there are two levels of reasonable doubt here: firstly, the figures consist of people who seem to be drunk – at a time when it is hard to make such cognitive judgments – or people who claim they were drunk when committing a crime – which they may be likely to do in search of mitigation.

    Secondly, there is no distinction between correlation and causation. Did this person commit this crime because they were drunk, as is being implied here? If that were true, then the more I drink the more violent and/or criminally minded I will become. This simply does not occur among the majority of us who are not criminally minded to begin with. And global studies show no direct correlation between alcohol consumption and crime.

    What is the net cost?

    If we want to produce an accurate figure for the cost of alcohol to society, we must surely look at the net cost. There is not a single accountant on the planet who would argue that looking at expense without looking at income provides an accurate financial picture.

    Alcohol raises about £8bn in duty every year – more than offsetting the cost to the health service plus – in the NSMC version – the costs to other public services.

    In total, the beer and pub industry alone is worth £28bn to the UK economy (source: HMRC). Before we even add in contributory factors from restaurants, bars, hotels, nightclubs and the economic value of wine and spirits, alcohol is a net contributor to the UK economy if its cost to the economy is close to the £20bn figure quoted. With the other figures, it surely exceeds the £55 billion figure too.

    And what about intangibles?

    If I suggested out of the blue that we should calculate a figure for the amount of happiness, joy and sociability created by alcohol, you might have some justification to accuse me of trying too hard, of over-egging the pudding. But to lapse into playground jargon for one second (it takes so much effort to stay rational) – they started it.

    If we’re going to estimate a monetary value for the cost to workplaces of people being hungover, the cost to families of having to look after ill family members, the cost to individuals of the reduced quality of life from having an alcohol related illness – all of which are included in the £55bn figure – surely this needs to be counter-balanced by:

    • A valuation of the benefits of what the BMA itself admits is “the lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), ischaemic stroke and diabetes mellitus, [of moderate drinkers] compared to individuals who abstain from alcohol” 
    • A valuation of the benefits from what they refer to as the “feelings of relaxation and euphoria” that come with “no risk” moderate drinking – in other words, the pattern of drinking practiced by the majority of the population.

     [1] DALY calculates the cost of potential years of life lost due to premature death, including the equivalent of ‘healthy’ years of life lost die to poor health or disability. It’s calculated as ‘Years of Life Lost’ + ‘Years Lived With Disability’. So it now seems that a year of healthy life – like everything else in society – can now be judged in terms of its monetary worth.