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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 12 August 2014

When will the anti-alcohol lobby stop lying about the '£21 billion' cost of alcohol to society?

They're at it again.

Yesterday a cross-party committee of MPs (working with the professional liars at Alcohol Concern, natch) demanded that health warnings become mandatory on alcohol labels in order to combat what they described as an 'epidemic' of alcohol related harm. It claimed the costs of alcohol abuse to society are "ever increasing". It also said we need a minimum unit price for alcohol, that alcohol advertising needs to be more tightly controlled, and that the drink drive limit should be lowered. 

There's so much misleading rhetoric, distortion by omission and outright falsehood here it's difficult to know where to start, but let's have a go.

The urgent need to combat drink driving is particularly ironic given that another report published yesterday - which obviously didn't get a fraction of the coverage that the anti-drink scaremongers did - reveals that drink driving deaths have just fallen to their lowest level since records began

There's also a call to tighten the marketing and promotion of alcohol in order to protect children from the possibility of alcohol abuse. This, despite there being not a single study that has managed to successfully link alcohol advertising and under age drinking, and also despite the news last month that under age drinking has also fallen to the lowest level since records began.

And then there's the call for 'sobriety orders' which we apparently need in order to 'break the cycle of alcohol and crime, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence. Leaving aside the deeply offensive slur that drinkers are more likely to beat their partners, yet again it's curious that we need these new measures when violent crime is falling dramatically, and academics who have studied this decline cite a dramatic fall in binge drinking as the main reason for the fall in violent crime.

And overall, I'm confused as to how the cost of alcohol to society can be 'ever increasing' when alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level for twenty years. (Are you starting to see a pattern here yet?)

The '£21 billion' figure for the cost of alcohol to society continues to be quoted without question across the entirety of our news media. Yet here's the independent fact verification body FullFact discrediting the figure and declaring it unreliable over two years ago. Two of the reasons they give for this criticism are that they were unable to find anyone who worked on calculating it, and there seems to be no existing record of how the figure was actually worked out. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg as to why £21 billion cannot be relied on, as I've described many times before. And on top of all that, if there has been an 18% fall in alcohol consumption since the figure was calculated ten years ago, how the hell can cost of that consumption to society still be as high as it was, let alone 'ever increasing'? (The figure was nudged up from £20 billion to £21 billion at random, with no recalculation, even as alcohol consumption in the UK went into decline. FullFact were unable to find anyone at the Department of Health who could explain why.)

The biggest part of alcohol's cost to society according to this figure is the effects of alcohol related crime. As we've already seen, violent crime is falling sharply, thanks to a reduction in binge drinking behaviour. So I ask again - how can the cost of that crime to society not also be falling sharply?

When you read the arguments why we need to crack down on our binge drinking 'pandemic', all these facts are conveniently ignored. They focus instead on the rise in alcohol related hospital admissions (which, as I'm fond of saying, is highly dubious), and the rise in liver related health complaints. This latter is a cause for concern. But health costs are the smallest part of the £21 billion total. The argument simply falls apart under the mildest scrutiny - yet no one in mainstream media will give it that scrutiny.

There's no denying that a group of people are drinking harmfully. But the behaviour of that group is not in line with overall population trends. Measures that affect all drinkers - such as minimum pricing or restricted availability - not only punish moderate drinkers; they don't get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers. The problem is not the general availability of price of booze - it it was, the more affluent we are, the more harmfully we'd be drinking. In fact, the opposite is true: demographically, the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related ill-health. 

Health warnings on packs will do nothing to deter hardened drinkers. But they will help demonise alcohol for everyone else. Why is no work being done to discover why a minority are drinking increasingly harmfully when the vast majority of the population - every time they are asked - claim to be cutting down on their alcohol consumption, and falling booze sales suggest they are telling the truth? 

The very people who claim to be most Concerned about Alcohol are betraying those most in need of their help every time they distort the true picture by suggesting we have a society-wide problem when any impartial analysis shows the problem is specific to certain groups, or at the very least shows the problem is in decline, not worsening. I honestly don't know how they can live with themselves.

Despite all its flaws,  I've been told that in the autumn the anti-alcohol lobby will be launching a massive social media campaign to 'raise awareness' of the cost of alcohol to society using the hashtag #£21billion, despite knowing full well that that figure has been discredited, and that even if it was accurate when it was first 'calculated', it can't possibly still be right now. MPs from all parties are taking part in a campaign deliberately to misinform, mislead and create undue alarm. 

Who'd have thought?

12 comments:

Duncan McKean said...

A general unwillingness to challenge even the most alarming statistics is becoming the norm in the media on all topics (and I should know, I work in PR). At best it's bad journalism. At worst, it's misleading and potentially dangerous. Any sense in creating a counter-hashtag that can be used and linked to this blog post? #£21BillionLie or something?

Dick Puddlecote said...

"Measures that affect all drinkers - such as minimum pricing or restricted availability - not only punish moderate drinkers; they don't get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers"

The new temperance lobby aren't interested in just problem drinkers, they just don't want anyone to drink. When you understand that, it's easy to see why they lie as you quite rightly highlight.

It's also why they refuse to accept the scientific fact that moderate drinking is more healthy than being teetotal.

Yvan Seth said...

I've been having a major grumble about this today after a big alcohol bashing session on Radio 4's You and Yours!

We need to lobby Radio 4's More or Less to have a go at the dodgy statistics being bandied about in parliament!

I suggested people submit this post of Pete's post to More or Less via this form: https://ssl.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd/contact

Also the You and Yours blurb says alcohol causes "more than 15,000 deaths" each year, but the ONS stats for 2012 say there were 8,367 alcohol related deaths... and there is quite a difference between related and causes in this context.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

@Yvan Seth
I never bother following the BBC for proper news these days because
its agenda is so obviously left-wing,London-centric,biased.

Plus the fact its " journalists " are mainly university media graduates with little or no experience of proper news gathering who rely almost exclusively on PR handouts and talking heads to construct a story to fit the BBC's view rather than reality.

You only have to look at how badly the Corporation misjudged the rise of UKIP.

Little or no attempt was made glean facts from constituencies outside London and instead stereo-types were created for news stories and battalions of socialists were dragooned on to discussions programmes to parrot the BBC view

Cue red-faces all round on election night.

Robin Day would never have been the lap-dog that David Dimblebore has become.

It's not the anti-alcohol lobboy who should be taken to task for lying but the media savants too gormless to do a proper job of refuting them.

And you're wasting your time lobbying the BBC - it has no interest in public opinion whatsoever.

Peter Witting said...

I've given up complaining to BBC as their adjudicating committee are as dim and prejudiced as their 2nd rate production team of "journalists"! Ditto my MP who dismissed issues on TV without any comeback from interviewer. It's getting more like the USA where brainwashing is the name of the game.

Temperance Tim said...

Anything that reduces the pernicious sin and societal evil of drinking has to be considered for the greater good. So what if it’s a lie? "The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end." - Leon Trotsky

Dick Puddlecote said...

"Measures that affect all drinkers - such as minimum pricing or restricted availability - not only punish moderate drinkers; they don't get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers."

Sadly, this is because the alcohol lobby is not interested in merely tackling problem drinkers, they just don't want anyone drinking at all!

This is why they routinely ignore the overwhelming conclusion of studies which show moderate drinking is more healthy than total abstinence. Denormalising alcohol and stigmatising people who like a drink is the only game in town, hence their incessant lying.

Dick Puddlecote said...

"Measures that affect all drinkers - such as minimum pricing or restricted availability - not only punish moderate drinkers; they don't get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers."

Sadly, this is because the alcohol lobby is not interested in merely tackling problem drinkers, they just don't want anyone drinking at all!

This is why they routinely ignore the overwhelming conclusion of studies which show moderate drinking is more healthy than total abstinence. Denormalising alcohol and stigmatising people who like a drink is the only game in town, hence their incessant lying.

Dave Morton said...

If we are on the subject of Radio 4 then a letter to More or Less perhaps? They love zombie statistics that refuse to die even when disproved many times!

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work!

pdtnc said...

Sounds like we need to join forces with 'Break the Taboo' to bring common sense and reasoned logic into matters like this.

Peter Witting said...

As a cyclist vulnerable to drink drivers, I am also aware that most RTAs involve drivers who have not drunk any alcohol. These "accidents" occur because of driver failure, not alcohol! They will occur whether a driver is sober or has drunk alcohol. Yet if alcohol has been drunk, the incident is always blamed on drink-driving. Clearly this is statistically nonsense. I have yet to see any media report that the drink-driving figures are clearly incorrect.