Wednesday 14 September 2011

Another day, another stupid claim about alcohol

It really is relentless. From the Guardian...

Price of alcohol is 'obscenely low'

The article that follows is mostly a routine pro-temperance piece calling for minimum pricing. It coincides with the launch of Alcohol Research UK, of whom I'm sure we'll be hearing much more in the future.

It does, however, contain one or two gems as the alcohol crusaders attempt to freshen up their message.

"A gram of cocaine in Yorkshire costs £40 [whereas] 40 grams of alcohol costs a pound if you buy white cider at £2 for a 2 litre bottle," said Robin Davidson, a clinical psychologist and chair of the newly launched charity, Alcohol Research UK. "The price of this drug is obscenely low."

Give that man a cigar for the most absurd apples and oranges comparison of the week. Grams of alcohol? What in the name of Lucifer's longjohns is this supposed to tell us? A pound of cement costs less than a pound of parsley, and a pint of nitrogen costs more than a pint of orange juice. So what? I challenge Mr Davidson to take 40 grams of cocaine a day while I take 40 grams of alcohol. At the end of the experiment I shall visit his grave. This individual is the head of this new 'charity', please note. God help us.

There is also a new take on the old 'non-drinkers are paying for drinkers/passive drinking' canard.

Ian Gilmore [for it is he], consultant at Royal Liverpool Hospital and immediate past president of the Royal College of Physicians, said that moderate or non-drinkers are "almost certainly currently subsidising the heavy drinker in the supermarket. All the hooks to get people into supermarkets are drinks adverts – they're subsidising and discounting alcohol instead of fruit and vegetables. If there was no discounting of alcohol, it's likely that the shopping basket would be cheaper for people who do not drink heavily."

This is a reference to the temperance lobby's persistent claim that supermarkets use alcohol as a loss-leader to drag people into their stores to spend money. This, says, Gilmore means that "moderate or non-drinkers" are having to pay for heavy drinkers (because, presumably, moderate drinkers would never take advantage of such offers).

Let us, just for a moment, assume that supermarkets do indeed use alcohol as a loss-leader. Why would they do it? The whole point, surely, is to attract customers who then spend their money on other items in the store. You get your loss-leader cheap but then give the supermarket a nice profit on the rest of your weekly shop. No such thing as a free lunch. You pay your way in the end. No one is subsidising you. You subsidise yourself.

However, I have never seen an example of alcohol being sold below cost (except, perhaps, items that are approaching their sell-by date) and nobody from 'alcohol control' has ever produced evidence to the contrary. Since it would be extremely easy to go into a supermarket and take a photo of a below-cost offer, I have to assume that the forces of temperance are lying again.

In fact, we know that this kid of loss-leading is either non-existent or exceptionally rare, because when the government said it would outlaw the practice in January, the temperance lobby immediately said that it would make no difference.

Prof Gilmore said a tiny amount of drinks were currently sold below duty plus VAT

"If you go round the supermarket shops today, even where they're heavily discounted, they will not fall below this level."

Gilmore's belief in the threat of loss-leading does rather seem to change with the wind, does it not?

Let's remember that Gilmore, who weeps crocodile tears about moderate drinkers being ripped off, wants to bring in minimum pricing, a policy that will institutionalise the system of ripping off moderate drinkers—particularly the poor—and will make drinkers subsidise nondrinkers even more than they currently do.

To examine the issue further, Alcohol Research UK plans to carry out more work looking at the effects of minimum pricing of alcohol when it comes into force in Scotland.

Excellent. An academic study to be carried out by impartial researchers using the most rigorous scientific methods. I imagine the newly formed Alcohol Research UK will look at the issue with an open mind and let the data fall where it may.

Or perhaps not...

"There's a lot of anecdote and bias in this debate and we're funding [a project] to look at the effect of minimum pricing when it's introduced in Scotland on the drinking habits of highly dependent drinkers," said Davidson. "The urban myth is that, if the price of alcohol goes up, the moderate drinkers are going to stop but the alcoholics will find a way to fund their addiction. We know that's probably not true and we're going to fund a major flagship project to explore that."

Look, I'm not nostalgic about the past. I know there have always been bent scientists and dodgy statisticians. I realise that there have always been researchers who have set about their work with a desired outcome in mind. But surely there was a time when such people at least had the common decency to pretend that they were not working to an a priori conclusion, rather than telling a national newspaper that they viewed the null hypothesis as an "urban myth" before they'd even begun.

Alcohol Research UK is just the new name for the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC), by the way. They rebadged it, you fool, as Alan Partridge would say. AERC was funded by DrinkAware, ie. the drinks industry.

Presumably the drinks industry is funding AERC under its new name of Alcohol Research UK. If so, I can't help feeling that their strategy for defending themselves against the anti-alcohol lobby is a trifle counterproductive. Suicidal even. But what do I know? Maybe giving your enemies huge sums of cash with which to fight you is a subtle and cunning plan, like Baldric's cunning plan to escape execution by doing nothing until his head is cut off.


Anonymous said...

Superb post Chris.

'Idioticism' in action.

dlr said...

40 grams of alcohol costs a lot less than a pound. 40 grams is about 1 1/2 OUNCES.