Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Alcohol sales after minimum pricing - the saga continues

Another NHS evaluation of minimum pricing (MUP) was published today. You can probably guess the general conclusion from the fact that it was the first item on BBC Politics Live, ahead of the big story about Huawei. The Beeb seems obsessed with promoting minimum pricing at the moment.

Just watch this garbage...

So much nonsense in so little time.

Firstly, there's been no research published on problem drinking in Scotland under MUP, so Smith is a fabulist to claim that it is 'on the way down'. All we have are the alcohol-related death figures for 2018 which rose in Scotland and fell in England and Wales (although you'd never guess that if you relied on the BBC for your news.)

Secondly, Scotland's alcohol consumption is not "average" for the UK, as Smith claims. It is significantly higher and has been for as long as anyone can remember.

Thirdly, Mexico has never had minimum pricing. I can only assume that Jo Coburn is confusing it with another regressive nanny state policy, the sugar tax.

In case you're wondering, the fourth guest was also in favour of minimum pricing. Lovely bit of balance. 

As for the report itself, it claims that there was a 3.6 per cent drop in off-trade alcohol sales in the twelve months after MUP was introduced. This, apparently, is what success looks like...


A 3.6% decline is a very different finding to that produced by the IRI sales figures that I have mentioned before.

IRI's figures show that there were 25 million more units of alcohol sold in the first nine months of minimum pricing than in the same period in the previous year. This is not a large rise, but it is certainly not a decline, even when you look at the figures on a per capita basis. Although I haven't seen the figures for the last three months of the year, I am told that nothing dramatic happened to sales that would have reversed this picture.

IRI uses a similar methodology to Nielsen in so far as they both look at what goes through the tills in a large sample of shops. Aldi and Lidl don't co-operate with either company so IRI and Nielsen have to estimate/guess how much alcohol they are selling. This leaves room for error in both sets of statistics and I cannot say which has the best system.

Nielsen gets data directly from 83% of the non-discount supermarkets and large convenience chains, of which there are over 10,000. But for the 33,000 independent convenience stores, it settles for a weekly random sample from which it makes an estimate.

That's a problem because there is good evidence that people are shopping more alcohol in convenience stores since MUP was introduced. Why wouldn't they? If supermarkets don't have a price advantage on cheap drink, you can just buy it from your corner shop.

It is unclear whether the discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl have benefited from MUP, but we do know that people are using them more year-on-year for their grocery shopping. Therefore, the two sectors of the retail industry that are most likely to have been selling more alcohol since May 2018 have the least reliable information in the Nielsen data set.

I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong, nor am I saying that the IRI figures are necessarily better. It would obviously not be surprising if a price rise led to less consumption. Unless the alcohol industry publishes the IRI figures, people are naturally going to rely on the Nielsen figures. But the overall sales figures published today are far from definitive and may be way off.

And when you consider the cross-border and online shopping that has undoubtedly taken place - but which cannot be quantified - you should not mistake any sales figures for consumption figures.

Last Orders with Dominic Frisby

More podcastery for you. The new episode of Last Orders has landed, in which we are joined by Dominic Frisby to discuss Prohibition, fake news and taxation. Dominic has recently published a book about the latter. It's called Daylight Robbery, a reference to the window tax which, as you will hear on the podcast, lasted a lot longer than you might think.

It appears that the IEA's office was once a victim of it...

Listen, subscribe, etc.

Dominic is also trying to get his Brexit single to number one in the charts this weekend. You can help him here.

Yes, sugar consumption has declined

This tweet was doing the rounds last week, attracting the best part of 3,000 retweets and 10,000 likes.

The tweeter seems to have monetised his interest in the keto diet. It's unclear whether he's referring to the UK or the USA. Either way, his figures are wrong.

Sugar consumption in Britain is currently somewhere around 30 to 35 kilograms per year, as multiple sources confirm. That's 66 to 77 pounds.

We have been consuming more than 5 pounds of sugar a year since the 1710s and we were consuming 90 pounds of it by the start of the twentieth century. It reached a low under rationing during World War II but even then the amount consumed (70 pounds) was about the same as is consumed today. The peak seems to have been in the 1970s when the figure was 115 pounds.

If Britons stuck to the new guidelines, which have no scientific justification, per capita consumption would be well under 25 pounds a year, a level last seen in the early nineteenth century.

That is what the facts say - and we have plenty of facts on the production, import, sale and consumption of sugar. I have written about this before, but nobody wants to believe it because it doesn't fit the current, laxy narrative and it doesn't offer easy answers.

Nevertheless, sugar consumption is lower today than it was when obesity was at a fraction of the current level. A new study published this month confirms it, and finds a similar decline across the English-speaking world. Published in Nature Food, the authors 'analysed data for 171 countries on the availability of 18 food groups from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization' since 1961 and found that...

...in many Western countries the supply of animal source foods and sugar declined.
The animal source and sugar score increased most over the half-century in China, followed by countries in southern and eastern Europe, east Asia and parts of central Asia. Meanwhile, six of the nine largest decreases took place in high-income English-speaking countries (that is Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America).
...although east Asia also experienced a large rise in the animal source and sugar score, many Western countries, especially high-income English-speaking countries, experienced declines.
South Korea, China and Taiwan experienced the largest changes, with animal source foods and sugar, vegetables and seafood and oilcrops all becoming a more abundant component of food supply. This contrasts with high-income English-speaking countries, in which the animal source and sugar score has declined substantially.

Naturally, the study was not reported by the media anywhere.

Déjà brew: 100 years on from prohibition

With the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition two weeks ago, I did a podcast for the IEA talking about the lessons that have been learned and unlearned.

Do have a listen and get yourself subscribed to it if you haven't already.

I also wrote about the centenary for Spiked.

And see Monday's blog post if you need a reminder of the problems of neo-prohibitionism today.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Australia's tobacco bootleggers

In September, cigarette taxes will rise by 12.5% (plus VAT) in Australia for the eighth successive year. A pack of premium cigarettes will cost nearly $50.

The impact of these sky high prices on the smoking rate has been remarkably modest. Daily smoking prevalence has dipped from 14.5% in 2014-15 to 13.8% in 2017-18. This is less of a decline than many countries have managed without resorting to such extreme tactics, and is appreciably less than has been seen in countries which have allowed vaping to flourish (the sale of e-cig fluid is banned Down Under).

But the tax hikes have had very predictable effects in other ways...

In one month alone the Australian Border Force has seized 20 million cigarettes and almost 12 tonnes of illegal tobacco.

On June 1 2018 a joint Australian and Taiwanese operation intercepted two sea cargo containers full of black market smokes en route to Australia. 

The 20,100,000 illicit cigarettes would have resulted in about $14.2million in lost revenue, according to the ABF.

Just four days earlier ABF officers seized 1.6tonnes of illicit tobacco during a series of raids in Adelaide.

The raids came three days after another bust, this time involving about 10 tonnes of illicit tobacco.

This is going well!

Rohan Pike, who spent 25 years with the AFP and Border Force and created the Border Force’s Tobacco Strike Team, said he wasn’t surprised that smuggled cigarettes were so easy to come by.

“There were 300,000 seizures of illicit tobacco last year by the Border Force,” he said.

He said there are on average 1000 seizures a day.

Meanwhile, in Western Australia...

There has been an explosion in Australia’s tobacco black market after more than 300 tonnes of smuggled contraband was seized by officials in the past year.

Australian Border Force said the amount had tripled since 2017 as organised crime delved deeper into the illegal trade.

At this point, it would take an imbecile to deny that Australia's 'world leading' tobacco control policies has created an epidemic of black market activity.

Simon Chapman, respected tobacco control activist and health academic, said claims of a booming black market were overblown.

Image result for naked gun nothing to see

Thursday, 23 January 2020

How the regulatory ratchet works

The temperance lobby’s reaction to today’s study showing no impact of minimum pricing on underage drinkers has been depressingly predictable.

For years, they used children as a pretext for minimum pricing, endlessly complaining about ‘pocket money prices’. Here is Alcohol Focus Scotland in 2013, for example;

Chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, Dr Evelyn Gillan, said: ‘We must be aware that our young people are growing up in a proalcohol society where drinking is portrayed as a normal part of everyday life. To better protect our children, one of the best things we can do is to increase the ludicrous pocket money prices at which some alcohol is sold.’

Get that? One of the best. Not one option. Not one possibility. But a proven policy of the first order.

Alcohol Focus Scotland’s message today was rather different. Their current CEO, Alison Douglass, didn’t reflect on the study’s principle findings at all. She barely even mentioned minimum pricing. Instead, she said:

“This study provides a unique – and concerning – insight into the lives of a group of teenage drinkers and shows that the cost of alcohol is only one factor in their alcohol consumption.

The apparent ease with which these young people are able to acquire alcohol raises serious questions about enforcement of existing licensing legislation and age-verification arrangements which are there to protect young people.

.. The research also points to many of the products favoured by these young people as already costing more than 50p per unit, before MUP was introduced. We also know that brands are important to children and young people whether we’re talking about clothes and trainers or indeed alcohol. More needs to be done to address the attractiveness of alcohol by controlling alcohol marketing.”

Scotland’s public health minister, Joe Fiztpatrick, is singing from the same hymn...

“This study of a very small number of young people found where they were consuming alcohol the products were priced above the minimum price of 50p per unit.

We want to go further to protect our children and young people from alcohol harms and that is why I intend this year to consult on potential mandatory restrictions on alcohol marketing and advertising. Scotland will be the first of the UK nations to do so.”

And so the regulatory ratchet continues to turn. As I have said many times before, ‘public health’ is not a results-driven enterprise. Win or lose, the answer is always more bans and higher prices.

More evidence that minimum pricing was a flop

The evaluations of minimum pricing, such as they are, keep on coming. The latest looks at the drinking habits of 13 to 17 years who 'reported that they were drinking before and after MUP was introduced'. Fifty of them, to be precise.

Here are the findings...

The study found that money and price changes were not perceived to be barriers to drinking by the children and young people interviewed.
The price of alcohol was not seen as an important factor in their drinking behaviour, and overall they did not report changing what they drank, how much they drank or how they obtained their alcohol, in response to price alone.


The young people who reported that their favoured drink had increased in price tended to carry on drinking it because they said the price rise was not much and they could still afford it

Oh dear.

The study found no reported changes in the extent or nature of alcohol-related harms amongst the young people interviewed, following the introduction of MUP.

Hey ho, never mind. It was worth a try. (Narrator: It wasn't worth a try).

These results are not encouraging for those who wibbled on about the need to end 'pocket money prices' for the sake of the children. Let's recall what the Alcohol Health Alliance's Ian Gilmore said in 2016:

“In spite of a government commitment to tackle cheap, high-strength alcohol, these products are still available at pocket money prices. Harmful drinkers and children are still choosing the cheapest products - predominantly white cider and cheap vodka."

Apparently they weren't.

Interesting as this is, I hope we're going to get some quantitative evidence from the evaluation process soon. Studies based on statements from a small group of people are of limited value. However, when combined hard evidence that the sale of alcohol from shops rose after minimum pricing was introduced, and that the number of alcohol-related deaths rose in 2018, today's study is another piece of the jigsaw suggesting that minimum pricing has been a flop.


The BBC initially covered this story under the headline '"No impact" of alcohol pricing impact on young'.

But within a couple of hours - perhaps after a few phone calls from their friends in 'public health' - it was changed to this...

And they wonder why they are losing people's trust.