Wednesday 23 April 2014

Alcohol and violent crime

From the front page of The Times...

Shock drop in violent crime

Serious violent crime has halved in a decade as Britons cut down on binge-drinking and move towards a less macho culture, research has found.

This echoes a very similar story from the same newspaper last year...

Violent crime has fallen to its lowest level for 30 years and firearms offences are down for the eighth year in a row.

Indeed, the same story could have been told every year for the best part of two decades. The Office for National Statistics notes that violent crime peaked in 1995 and has been falling ever since. A similar trend has been seen in many developed countries and no one knows quite why.

Many theories have been put forward to explain why murder and violent crime started falling dramatically in the early 1990s. Some attribute it to the the rise of CCTV. Others say it is the result of higher incarceration rates. The Freakanomics authors link it to legalised abortion. Earlier this week, the BBC revived the intriguing idea that it is due to the decline of leaded petrol (although I suspect this is a classic correlation without causation). The Spirit Level authors try to link it to inequality (despite the fact that there is not even a correlation in that instance). And so on.

Today, the claim is that it is due to the decline in alcohol consumption...

Jonathan Shepherd, lead author of the study by the University of Cardiff’s Violence and Society Research Group, said: “Binge drinking has become less frequent, and the proportion of youths who don’t drink alcohol at all has risen sharply. Also, after decades in which alcohol has become more affordable, since 2008 it has become less affordable. For people most prone to involvement in violence, those aged 18 to 30, falls in disposable income are probably an important factor.”

It's always nice to see the press report the decline in alcohol consumption, which now amounts to an 18 per cent fall since 2004. The problem with the boozing/violence theory is that the ONS's figures show that the biggest fall in violent crime preceded the fall in drinking by ten years. Since then, the decline has been less impressive...

Between the 1995 and the 2001/02 surveys, the number of violent crime incidents fell, from 4.2 million in 1995 to 2.7 million in 2001/02. Since then there has been a general trend where the CSEW [Crime Survey for England and Wales] has seen a period of modest annual decreases (though often not large enough to be statistically significant year on year).

The ONS shows the rise and fall of violent crime in this graph...

It's also refreshing to hear - contrary to the usual hand-wringing - that alcohol has been getting less affordable in recent years, not that it will stop talk of 'pocket money prices' or silence those who want even higher taxes on booze. Changes in affordability are primarily the result of changes in incomes (alcohol is still more expensive in real terms), and incomes have fallen back to the levels of 2004 during the economic crisis.

Alcohol affordability has therefore also returned to the level of circa 2004. In the great scheme of things, this change is not huge. After a dip during the recession, affordability seems to have ticked upwards again more recently. As temperance campaigners would happily point out in any other context, alcohol is more affordable than it was when violent crime was much more common.

None of this really tallies with the alcohol consumption data, which show that per capita consumption started rising in the mid-1990s just as violent crime was starting to fall and started falling while alcohol was still becoming more affordable.

It wouldn't be surprising if alcohol consumption and violent crime were linked; a lot of violent crime is committed by drunks. And it is certainly true that recent years have seen a decline in both, but the correlation does not stand up if we go a few years further back.

The bigger picture shows that the decline in violence - which has been seen in other countries which have very different drinking patterns - preceded the decline in alcohol consumption by many years and was initially accompanied by a significant increase in alcohol consumption. The decline in violence was also accompanied by an increase in the affordability of alcohol until quite recently.

So whilst we cannot rule out a 'recession effect' on heavy drinking amongst some groups which might have had an impact on the prevalence of violent crime, it does not seem to have been - indeed, cannot have been - the cause of the long-term decline.


BrianB said...

Reviewing violent crime trends from 1995 is blatant cherry-picking!

Looking across the whole time series (from 1981) there seems to be no significant change overall, so what societal changes may have accounted for such a rise in the mid to late 1990s?

I am deeply suspicious of the fact that three of the 4 crime indicators all 'peaked' in 1995 - a highly unlikely coincidence in my view.

I also note that the recording frequency seems to have increased (to annual) after 1995 - which suggests an increased level of surveillance going on,

Now, I'm not usually one to accuse ONS of fiddling statistics, but it does all seem to paint a convenient picture of how Blair's increased enthusiasm for 'government by targets' seems to have produced an almost miraculous fall in violent crime (that had itself increased sharply under the previous nasty, nasty 'Tory' goverment), doesn't it?

I am always sceptical where any 'official' crime statistics are concerned.

And anyway, it clearly has bugger-all to do with alcohol.

James Heartfield said...

I would have thought that a serious contended for the explanation would be the rise in the share and number of women in the workforce, which corresponds to the fall in violent crime.

Less women dependent on men, more independent, must be a constraint upon domestic violence, which would make up a large proportion of assaults.

Anonymous said...

After hearing all day that higher booze prices have led to lower violent crime, I'm just waiting to be told that we need even higher prices (MUP) to get even lower violent crime.

Whereas, of course, if higher prices were not leading to lower violent crime then we'd need.. er.. even higher prices (MUP) to get lower violent crime.

Whether or not the facts of the story necessarily stand up, the narrative is useful. Convince everyone that there's a link between alcohol pricing and violent crime and MUP is given some 'oh won't somebody thing of the innocent passers by' legitimacy.

Ivan D said...

Unfortunately the BBC dominates UK news and does not appear to employ anyone with the intellect or will to write a piece of this quality. So the nation has been told that it is all down to more expensive booze in a news feature juxtaposed with a shock horror about an e-cig setting fire to someone's car seat.

FrankSW said...

A burst that started around 1990, would that be when the first wave of mass availability of computing rolled out (goes all dreamy over the IBM XT, does anyone else remember Lounge Suite Larry in 4 colour CGA)

Did this change from paper to more efficient computing technology allow the police forces to start recording incidents more accurately in the early 90's?

Marcel said...

Frank has a good point - it is very possible that this is simply reflecting more accurate records.

Aside from that, I will venture a guess: the fall of communism in the East, with the associated emigration towards the West, might account for it (because I suspect that the first people to emigrate when it suddenly becomes possible are the ones who are not well adjusted to their current society, in *some* cases because of their anti-social behavior).

Furor Teutonicus said...

Try this;

XX "The prolonged ingestion of fluoride may cause significant damage to health and particularly the nervous system," write researchers Valdez-Jiminez, et al. in their report. "Fluoride is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, which may cause biochemical and functional changes in the nervous system during pregnancy, since the fluoride accumulates in brain tissue before birth."
(, cross directly into the brain where they lodge themselves and cause disease. They also enter the thyroid and pineal glands and disrupt proper hormone production, which leads to various other illnesses.

..... even the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that fluoride is a toxin. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also initiated damage control recently by lowering its fluoridation recommendations following the release of studies showing that fluoride harms children (

"It's apparent that fluorides have the ability to interfere with the functions of the brain," says the US National Research Council's (NRC) expert fluoride panel. "Fluorides also increase the production of free radicals in the brain through several different biological pathways. These changes have a bearing on the possibility that fluorides act to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease." XX

NOW! Think back to just WHEN they started mass water flouridisation!