Monday 1 August 2011

Panorama's half-hour temperance commercial

This week's Panorama programme (BBC) can only be described as a half-hour advertisement for Britain's temperance movement. Its big 'scoop'—repeated by most newspapers and then inserted into the News at Ten—was that "nearly half" of the representatives on the government's Alcohol Working Group are from the drinks industry. Since the rest were all anti-alcohol lobbyists, that seems like a pretty balanced panel to me, but apparently it's a scandal.

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.


Anonymous said...

My grand father was a fervent prohibitionist around the turn of the century (1900s) - I apologise!
My father was an alcoholic - I learned tolerance.
I enjoy social drinking but we are being denied that pleasure/sin.

Fredrik Eich said...

I thought it was interesting that the program highlighted that around half the seats on the government advisory body was occupied by representatives of the drink industry. This is an attempt to select the drinks industry out of the equation, just as we see with SCOTH where there are any number of anti-smoking professionals as members. I also thought it risible that Anne Milton seemed to blame her lack of knowlege (of the drinks industry bieng present) on a communication problem in whitehall. I find it difficult to belive that she did not know that the drinks industry is well represented.
I was also was interested to see that at one point the presenter admitted that booze consumption is going down but blink and you would miss it. It reminded me of a guest on womans hour explaining how the reason lung cancer is going up among females is because males have done a better job of giving up smoking!?! Despite that fact that smoking rates among males and females have been declining for four decades in a row.

Anonymous said...

This bollocks was trailed on the national news and probably a trail after.

So I avoided Panorama by watching porn and drinking cheap vodka.

Best way to deal with it, these bansturbators will have free reign over Pravda and the other associated mini turds hanging off your arse hairs.

Ivan D said...

If you type “complaints” into the search box on the BBC website then it takes you to a page where you can register your concern at the BBCs ongoing support for the temperance movement .

I sincerely suggest that more people make the effort as BBC coverage of health issues is hopelessly biased and quite frankly beyond the pale.

After all, it only took 5 Mexicans to force the BBC into a grovelling apology about Top Gear so why not give it a go? The corporation is paid for by all of us but increasingly seems to want to serve a socio –political elite. There is no real excuse for propaganda and the BBC is bang to rights guilty of producing exactly that.

Curmudgeon said...

Excellent post, as usual. That duty rates table is a bit out of date, though. In the past couple of years we've had above-inflation duty rises, so it wouldn't surprise me now that on beer we were above both Ireland and Finland, and on spirits above Finland if not Ireland.

nisakiman said...

Let's admit it, we all knew the route the anti-alcohol lobby would take after the success of the lies and misinformation campaign broadcast by the anti-tobacco zealots.

All of us, that is, except the "it'll never happen to us" drinkers who supported the smoking bans.

Sadly, there is no point indulging in schadenfreude - we are all going to suffer at the hands of these petty little tyrants if we don't find some way of fighting back. Difficult when they have the MSM in their pockets and millions of taxpayers money being hosed at them.

Anonymous said...

As Fredrik said, there was a reference to cosumtion decreasing. I was expecting then an explanation of why liver disease was rocketing, but none came.

These people refuse to acknowledge homebrew, home wine making and the new phenomenom, possibly due to spirit drinking being an Eastern European tradition, of illicit stills. How long before we get the headline, "Health experts concerned about home wine making?"

Simon Cooke said...

Excellent as ever - have linked to it rather than pen my own rant!

Anonymous said...

The first graph shows over 15 consumption, which seems sensible. The last two show per capita, which will obviously be less; but why does the BPA use per capita? Under 15 consumption is almost negligible and the figures may be distorted by the varying proportion of under 15's in the population.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Anon 17.31,
Good question. I don't know the answer.


George Speller said...

Ivan D - I did just as you suggested and made a formal complaint to the Beeb. I wrote:
Overabundance of representatives of the anti-alcohol industry, unchallenged implications that the drinks industry should not be represented on the government's Alcohol Working Group, selective presentation of "facts" - historically alcohol usage has been much higher in this country, claims that alcohol taxation increases would fix a problem that has been magnified beyond all proportion - a comparison with other EU countries (taxes and sdrinking rates) shows this not to be the case. I ojet strongly to the almost unnoposed claim that it is right to intervene in the contract between supplier and customer on the basis of protecting people from themselves.

Paul said...

I know that Norway is not in the EU but it might be worth looking at what the rate of taxation is there also.

As I have said elsewhere, it's looking increasingly likely that if beer and wine prices continue to rise and alcohol availability is restricted by these mad zealots there is likely to be a huge rise in home-brewing. As happens in Nordic countries and the parts of the US where alcohol is difficult and expensive to get hold of legally.

Anonymous said...

Sigh - we really do live in a world where people of limited intellect have far too much say over our lives.

As has been said before - if they make alcohol more expensive or dificult to get - I will just brew my own. Hardly rocket science.

Anonymous said...

Came here via the Pub Cumudgeon. Good article and report on the programme, which I imagined would be a one-sided pile of dross.

Glad that there are people with the facts putting things straight, though given the power and out of control zealotry of the BBC, their mischief and misrepresentation will continue to resonate louder - very sad.

Why so few, which their self-righteous agenda have such power, is quite depressing. I need a drink!

Curmudgeon said...

I've submitted an official complaint about bias. Hopefully if they get enough it might make them think.

The last time I made a complaint - about the comparison of Norris McWhirter with the BNP by David Baddiel - the BBC did eventually, belatedly, apologise.

Ivan D said...

Well done to George Speller and Curmudgeon. Hopefully more people will follow your lead and raise legitimate complaints.

I note that several people have made comments about distilling /brewing their own if faced with repressive legislation and if Chris will forgive me I would like to highlight a BBC news item on the topic of bootleg vodka in thge UK

The interesting paragraph relates to the origins of the practice in Eastern Europe

“Lithuania's connection to distilling dates back to the days of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s when the country had a "dry law".
Alcohol could only be bought for three hours across lunchtime, so people began to distil their own spirits. Even as recently as 2005, a pipeline carrying illegal vodka from Belarus was discovered.”

Not only are the zealots mendacious and unethical, they are also unable to learn the lessons of history.

Curmudgeon said...

Very easy to make a complaint to the BBC - just go to, click on "Complaints" at the bottom of the screen and follow the instructions. The whole thing takes less than 5 minutes.

Anonymous said...

I remember a few years ago, there was a court case involving an Eastern European woman that had settled in this country. She'd been convicted of manufacturing spirits, the method was described as very simple, no further details were given.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the BBC give a toss about comments on their site. I think that the best thing to do is to ignore their site and complain elsewhere. Although, I must admit, that I am not sure where the best 'elsewhere' is. For me, the best place is the Press Complaints Commission. The whole PCC was set up to investigate and correct infringement of 'the editors code'. I think that this also applies to the BBC. It may be that a BBC programme is created which has independent panelists, but an imbalance of panelists is clearly biased. Recently, the BBC seem to have been getting away with murder in this respect.

The BBC is too important to us all, historically, for us to allow it to become just an organ of the healthist propaganda. Many, many, many people have enjoyed their glasses of wine, their pints of beer and their glasses of whiskey over their full lifetimes and died at a grand old age. We do not need miserablists to dictate to us that we should conform to healthist ideals - based upon the fact that a few people have some fault or faults in their genetic make-up. And that is the problem with epidemiology - there is no such thing as a 'standard human being'. When will people start to realise this?

Ivan D said...

I have evidence that using the BBCs formal complaints system does sometimes get results although I sympathise because it quite often doesn’t, especially if the BBC are obviously in the wrong. It also strengthens your position with the PCC if you have complained and received either no response or an unsatisfactory one. It is a good idea to save your text and have someone witness that you sent it as the BBC system is less than transparent.

I agree that they ignore comments but theoretically they cannot ignore complaints and I am pretty sure that your views will at least be read if you follow that route.

I agree with your comments re the BBC which is why I think it worth making the effort.

James Higham said...

We have always been an alcohol consuming country, particularly with ale and scrumpy. We've never previously had issues with it and British pub culture was the envy of the world.

So what's with this "epidemic" rubbish?

Curmudgeon said...

Excellent article on Sp!ked by Rob Lyons: Panorama’s addiction to pisspoor journalism

Trooper Thompson said...

Excellent post.

As for complaining to the Ministry of Truth, I've tried it a few times, but never got much in return. The last time I don't think they even acknowledged it.

Curmudgeon said...

I have now received the following response from the BBC:

Thanks for contacting us regarding ' Dying for a Drink: Panorama’ broadcast on 1 August on BBC One.

We understand that you felt the programme was very one-sided and came across as propaganda for the anti-drink lobby.

We appreciate not everyone will agree with the content or outcome of our programmes. This programme in particular was an attempt to uncover the impact alcohol is having on a new and younger generation of drinkers, and asks whether the government is doing enough to stop us drinking ourselves to death. We appreciate that the audience may not agree with our conclusions. However, we seek neither to denigrate nor promote any particular view, rather we present the relevant facts and allow our audience to make up their own minds based on them. Senior editorial staff, the Executive Committee and the BBC Trust keep a close watch on programmes to ensure that standards of impartiality are maintained.

We'd like to assure you that your feedback has been registered on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that's made available to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, programme makers, channel controllers and other senior managers. The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

Anonymous said...

""Senior editorial staff, the Executive Committee and the BBC Trust keep a close watch on programmes to ensure that standards of impartiality are maintained.""

So where where they when this programme was made?

I have just had a look at my trusty ONS stats for 'causes of death in Eng & Wales 2009'. The total of deaths in that year was just under 500 000. Of those, the number of deaths from liver disease was 7 300. Of those, 2 600 were over 65, which leaves 2600.

The program said that one fifth of liver disease deaths is alcohol related. So, of the 2600, a little over 500 were alcohol related.

So all the hysteria is about 500 people! (Even among those, the link with alcohol is probably tenuous in many cases)

And, perhaps, the killer statistic - up to the age of 25, only 27 people died. One fifth of 27 is just over 5!

I am not going to complain to the BBC. I am going to complain on the Select Committee site - the one that the programme complained had too many reps from the industry. Here is the url for that site:

Leg-iron said...

You're going to be accused of being a Big Alcohol Shill.

I, on the other hand, am about to make shedloads of cash because I know how to turn bread yeast into booze yeast.

Silver linings and all that...

Christopher Snowdon said...

"We appreciate that the audience may not agree with our conclusions. However, we seek neither to denigrate nor promote any particular view, rather we present the relevant facts and allow our audience to make up their own minds based on them."

If they don't promote a particular view, how is it possible that we can agree or disagree with their "conclusions"?

TheFatBigot said...

"This programme ... asks whether the government is doing enough to stop us drinking ourselves to death."

This is the bit I found most interesting. It tells us so much about the attitude that pervades the BBC's coverage of health issues: (i) the little people cannot be trusted to look after themselves and (ii) only government intervention can save them from self-destruction.

The concept of leaving people to live their own lives (and take the adverse consequences if they get something wrong) simply doesn't feature on the BBC radar.