Panorama managed to ignore the irony of complaining about an imbalance in the government's policy group while making a programme that was as one-sided as the Battle of France. All the usual faces were there—Ian Gilmore, Don Shenker, Vivienne Nathanson—and all singing from the same hymn sheet they have been using for the last few years. They want a total ban on advertising, minimum pricing and restricted availability of alcohol (meaning, specifically, a ban on supermarkets selling alcohol). I think we all know that by now.
Did we see what ordinary drinkers thought of this? Did we see any academics who might be able to put British drinking habits in context? Of course not. Instead we got a brief clip of a representative from the drinks industry and a lot of footage of chronic alcoholics in a Liverpool hospital.
The policies put forward by the temperance lobby in this programme are not trivial. Alcohol advertising, though greatly restricted, has always been permitted in this country and no government has ever set a minimum price for alcohol or, as far as I am aware, any other product. Minimum pricing represents a major change in the way the state intervenes between buyer and supplier—"we can't let you buy it at that price, it's too cheap for you". This policy will cost nearly all drinkers a significant sum of money, it's probably illegal, there's no evidence that it will do any good and it's a Pandora's box that can never be closed.
Exceptional policies like these require exceptional circumstances and Panorama spent thirty minutes telling the viewer that Britain is indeed in crisis. Enormous quantities are being drunk at exceptionally low prices, they said, therefore prices need to rise. Something must be done.
Pretty much every assumption in this narrative is wrong. Whether judged by the standard of other countries or by the standard of previous eras, this country is not in the grip of an alcohol epidemic.
For instance, let's look at how the UK ranks amongst other EU states for alcohol consumption. (As always, click to enlarge).
As you can see, we are firmly mid-table, perched between Portugal and Cyprus. We are a very long way behind Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Estonia. Incidentally, note that Finland is up near the top despite having some of the highest alcohol taxes in the world.
And speaking of alcohol taxes, is it true that drink is under-taxed in Britain?
Absolutely not. Of all the EU countries, we have the second highest rate of duty on beer and wine and the third highest duty on spirits. The countries that come above us are Ireland and Finland, both of whom are amongst the biggest drinkers in the EU.
This tells us two important things that deserve more attention:
(1) high alcohol taxes are not very effective in reducing alcohol consumption
(2) British drinkers are already taxed exorbitantly on the alcohol we consume.
But aren't we drinking much more than we used to? Well, up to a point. This is the graph used in the Independent's report on the Panorama 'story' today.
Firstly, notice how drinking rates have been in decline for several years and are currently only a squeak ahead of what they were in 1980 (when, contrary to claims made on Panorama, alcohol was 20% cheaper in real terms).
Secondly, note the year in which this graph starts. Can you think of any reason why people didn't drink much in 1947, when rationing was still in place and the country was virtually bankrupt? Anything at all? Because according to David "I am not a prohibitionist" Nutt, it's because the drinks industry wasn't as powerful then:
Since the second world war the alcohol industry has become one of the most powerful and successful in the UK. Intake has grown steadily, each person on average drinking more than twice that consumed in 1945.
Far be it from me to contradict Professor Nutt, but I'm pretty sure there was unrestricted alcohol advertising and no minimum pricing in 1947. If we take a longer view and start the clock from a more typical time in history, a rather different picture emerges.
It's a shame this graph doesn't go even further back as there was a large fall in consumption from 1876 onwards, but this chart is enough to show us that people drank quite a bit more at the start of the last century before falling massively during the First World War, rising a little, collapsing again during the Great Depression and falling to another low in the austerity years. Unless my eyes deceive me, 1947 represented the lowest rate of alcohol consumption in British peacetime history. I wonder why the Independent and Prof. Nutt would pick this particular era as the start point?
Since 1947, alcohol consumption has gradually returned to normal levels. It can truthfully be said to have doubled, but it would be more informative to say that its returning to the historical average. Anyone who tells you that we're in the midst of a drinking epidemic because we're drinking twice as much as we did during the age of austerity is trying to sell you something. Specifically, they are trying to sell you deeply illiberal temperance policies under the cover of a moral panic which does not exist.