Thursday, 8 March 2012

Boozy Britain - what the BBC won't tell you

From the BBC:

Over-45s tend to drink more often, says ONS survey

Adults aged over 45 are three times as likely to drink alcohol every day as those aged under 45, results of a lifestyle survey suggest.

More than 22% of men aged 65 and over, but just 3% of men aged 16 to 24 drank almost every day - though younger adults were more likely to binge drink.

More than 13,000 people across Britain completed the Office for National Statistics survey.

Experts recommend three alcohol-free days a week.

The findings of the General Lifestyle Survey 2010 cover a range of topics including people's drinking and smoking habits.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. Alcohol Concern and Drinkaware are given ample space to say the usual stuff, but this is really a non-story. One age group is bound to drink more than the rest. It is a statistical inevitability.

There is nothing to see here, but there should be. Y'see, the General Lifestyle Survey is, as Ron Burgundy might say, kind of a big deal. It is the main source of statistics for alcohol consumption and I couldn't help but feel, as I read the Beeb's report, that there was something they weren't telling us.

Sure enough, the text of the report tells a very different story...

Between 2005 and 2010 average weekly alcohol consumption decreased from 14.3 units to 11.5 units per adult. Among men average alcohol consumption decreased from 19.9 units to 15.9 units a week and for women from 9.4 units to 7.6 units a week.

That, folks, is a twenty percent drop in the nation's alcohol consumption in just five years. Is that not newsworthy? Why wouldn't a state broadcaster think licence-payers would want to know a fact like that?

When a few medics wrote a letter to the Telegraph calling for minimum pricing, that was considered newsworthy.

When the Lancet picked a number out of the air and extrapolated it over twenty years, that was considered it newsworthy.

When alcohol-related deaths increased by a statistically insignificant amount, that was considered newsworthy.

But a twenty percent drop in alcohol consumption? Nah, who'd want to hear that? After all, it's hardly going to help the campaign for minimum pricing and a total advertising ban if people discover that the Booze Britain narrative is a myth.

The drop in drinking doesn't just apply to per capita consumption. Take the 'safe' drinking level, for example...

Since 2005 the GHS/GLF has shown a decline in the proportion of men drinking more than 21 units of alcohol a week and in the proportion of women drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week. The proportion of men drinking more than 21 units a week fell from 31 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent in 2010 and the proportion of women drinking more than 14 units a week fell from 21 per cent to 17 per cent over the same period.

Yes, but what about the young people—Britain's true binge-drinkers?

These changes were driven by falls in the younger age groups. Among men, the percentage drinking more than 21 units of alcohol a week decreased in the 16 to 24 age group (from 32 per cent to 21 per cent) and in the 25 to 44 age group (from 34 per cent to 27 per cent). Falls were also present among women; the percentage drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week fell in the 25 to 44 age group from 25 per cent to 19 per cent.

Dammit! What about heavy drinking then? Surely that's gone through the roof...

When using the average weekly consumption measure, heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than 50 units a week for men and consuming more than 35 units a week for women. There have been falls in the proportions of both men and women who drink heavily since 2005. The estimates for men fell from 9 per cent to 6 per cent and for women fell from 5 per cent to 3 per cent from 2005 to 2010.

And so it goes on and on...

The proportion of men who reported drinking alcohol in the seven days before interview fell from 72 per cent in 2005 to 67 per cent in 2010. Similarly, the proportion of women who reported drinking alcohol in the seven days before interview fell from 57 per cent to 53 per cent over the same period. In addition, the proportion of men who reported drinking alcohol on at least five days in the week before interview fell from 22 per cent in 2005 to 17 per cent in 2010. The proportion of women reporting drinking alcohol on at least five days in the week before interview fell from 13 per cent to 10 per cent over the same period.

There is a downward trend in the proportions of men exceeding four units and women exceeding three units on their heaviest drinking day in the week before interview. The proportion of men exceeding four units on their heaviest drinking day was 41 per cent in 2005 and 36 per cent in 2010. The proportion of women exceeding three units was 34 per cent in 2005 and 28 per cent in 2010.

The estimates for heavy drinking follow a similar pattern. When using the heaviest drinking day in the last week measure, heavy drinking is defined as exceeding twice the Government daily benchmarks on a single day: more than 8 units of alcohol on that day for men and consuming more than 6 units on that day for women. The proportion of men drinking more than 8 units on their heaviest drinking day fell from 23 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2010. The corresponding estimates for women drinking heavily (more than 6 units) were 15 per cent in 2005 and 13 per cent in 2010.

The most pronounced changes have occurred in the 16 to 24 age group. Among men in this age group, the proportion drinking more than 4 units on their heaviest drinking day fell from 46 per cent in 2005 to 34 per cent in 2010 and the proportion drinking more than 8 units decreased from 32 per cent to 24 per cent over the same period. There have also been marked falls for women in this age group with the proportion drinking more than 3 units on their heaviest drinking day falling from 41 per cent in 2005 to 31 per cent in 2010 and the proportion drinking more than 6 units falling from 27 per cent to 17 per cent.

I think you get the picture.

Not one word of this was reported by the BBC, although they are able to find space for the dregs of junk science and thinly-veiled policy documents. I've come to expect nothing more from the BBC's health reporters, but the fact that the rest of the media have reported the findings of the General Lifestyle Survey in much the same way suggests that the Office for National Statistics press released it like this (if you want how deeply churnalism in engrained in Fleet Street compare and contrast the BBC's report with that of the Guardian).

Pitiful.

17 comments:

Zaphod Camden said...

Experts recommend THREE alcohol free days a week?!

What happened to two?!



(Not that it matters, as I had about six thousand alcohol free days in a row at one point in my life, so I've done my allocation…)

Jay said...

You know, there's an easy way to fix the BBC. It's called not paying your TV licence fee. Imagine: What if no one paid it. What if we all rebelled? All of us. Something so simple. And yet... never going to happen. Why? No, seriously: why?!!! Let's stop writing about it, and do something about it. Does the BBC have the resources to go after all of us? Think about the court cases, the discovery... Oh, the joy.

Sorry, was dreaming there for a moment and forgot I lived in Britain. Never mind.

Curmudgeon said...

Older people tend to drink smaller amounts on a regular, routine basis. Younger people tend to alternate days of abstention with days of bingeing. It has always been thus.

And I thought it was two days as well, not three. No doubt it will be four soon, then five.

dearieme said...

"Experts recommend three alcohol-free days a week." In what sense are they "experts"?

Anonymous said...

If they weren't reporting on the health problems associated with alcohol, people would say they were in the alcohol industry's pocket.

This is such a non-issue. I'd rather they printed negative stories about alcohol than positive - try visiting all the people dying from alcoholism in liver and kidney wards in your local hospital and tell us whether you think people have got the message yet! They haven't.

an_englishman_abroad said...

Same sort of non story as no global warming for five years. No money in either, carbon tax and minimum unit pricing of alcohol. Nothing of interest to lobby groups=no story.

dearieme said...

"all the people dying from alcoholism in liver and kidney wards" have known perfectly well, throughout thir lives, that booze is potentially dangerous stuff and that one way to keep it from endangering you is to restrict your drinking to modest amounts.

It is, of course, hard to generalise about what constitutes "modest amounts" since no one with the least critical intelligence will believe a word said on that topic by the Powers That Be.

Suboptimal Planet said...

I like the bit in the ONS report that justifies the importance of their work:

"The Department of Health estimates that the harmful use of alcohol costs the National Health Service around £2.7bn a year1 and 7 per cent of all hospital admissions are alcohol related. Drinking can lead to over 40 medical conditions, including cancer, stroke, hypertension, liver disease and heart disease. Reducing the harm caused by alcohol is therefore a priority for the Government and the devolved administrations. The GHS/GLF is an important source for monitoring trends in alcohol consumption"

Nice neutral statisticians, these.

Nevermind that the government raked in an estimated £8.678 billion in alcohol taxes from April 2011 to February 2012, according to the ONS's Alcohol Duties Statistical Bulletin - December 2011.

TB said...

Wake up Chris. Bad news is news; good news is not. That's the way of all the press not unique to the Beeb.

TB

Suboptimal Planet said...

"That's the way of all the press not unique to the Beeb."

The difference is that the BBC aren't subject to the same commercial pressures, so they should be providing balanced reports, rather than churning out sensationalist rubbish (I'm sure there's something in their charter that requires it).

There's no way to reform the BBC, of course. It will have to go.

TB said...

They are all journalists regardless of the type of employer. They work in journalism. News is news. Good news isn't (Martyn Lewis anyone?). The knee-jerk anti-Beeb rant is naive.

TB

Snowdon said...

Premature births falling by 10% after the Scottish smoking ban sounds like pretty good news to me (it was bollocks obviously, but good news if true). Strangely, the BBC didn't have a problem making that a major news story.

http://velvetgloveironfist.blogspot.com/2012/03/scottish-smoking-ban-miracle-touches-to.html

Iain said...

"The difference is that the BBC aren't subject to the same commercial pressures, so they should be providing balanced reports, rather than churning out sensationalist rubbish"

It seems fairly clear the BBC sees itself as having a campaigning role on health issues and is not neutral. Whether they have been leant on or just do it naturally is anyone's guess.

phuzz said...

I'm sure I read a BBC story in the last week that mentioned that alcohol intake had decreased.
I might not have been paying enough attention mind.

Carl V Phillips said...

Hey, where does that "abstain n days per week" stuff even come from? I am genuinely curious. It must be from whole cloth -- there is no way there is any epidemiology to support it (as opposed to claims of "don't binge" or "don't drink more than X units"), since there is no data. And most of the biology suggests that consistent exposure is better than varying, holding dose constant.

Phil said...

I thought I heard an expert on radio four who claimed you needed only 24 hours not drinking for you liver to recover... of course I was very, very drunk at the time.

Seriously, this statistic was recently upheld by a nurse friend of a friend.

Phil said...

And then of course there is this

http://www.redandwhitekop.com/forum/index.php?topic=196634.0

on this page we see a Times report, stating that the experts who led the inquiry, including top men for the royal college of physicians, admit that they basically invented the recommended daily amounts because they felt they had to say something, despite there being no evidence. They are quoted on this. How does nonsense stuff filter through and start being treated as 'true' and 'fact'? Does someone have an ulterior motive? Is someone trying to control us in some way? Make us scared of everything? Keep us off balance permanently? Surely not.