Saturday 23 January 2016

The Guardian resurrects the Boozy Britain moral panic

The Guardian has had one of its spasms today with a series of articles attempting to revive the Boozy Britain panic. The newspaper is indistinguishable from the Daily Mail on such occasions. Its front page story reads like a press release from the Alcohol Health Alliance. That's because it is.

Earlier this week the Australian neo-temperance lobby got some headlines when it pointed out that a relatively small number of drinkers account for a large proportion of alcohol sales. This is hardly surprising. It is the same in most industries and is known as the Pareto Principle.

Seeing the news coverage in Australia, British wowsers made their own back-of-the-envelope calculation and alerted the Guardian's Sarah Boseley who lapped it up.

Exclusive: Firms claim to support responsible drinking, yet data shows those who consume at risky or harmful levels account for 60% of sales in England

Note the implicit accusation of dishonesty here, as if the statistic somehow proves that the 'firms' do not support responsible drinking. It is, of course, entirely up to the individuals how much they choose to drink and they will consume whatever quantity they like regardless of the views of the manufacturer.

The alcohol industry makes most of its money – an estimated £23.7bn in sales in England alone – from people whose drinking is destroying or risking their health, say experts who accuse the industry of irresponsible pricing and marketing.

That £23.7 billion isn't really the industry's money though, is it? About £7 billion is tax, for a start. Only a fraction of it is profit.

While the industry points to the fact that most people in the country are moderate drinkers, 60% of alcohol sales are either to those who are risking their health, or those – labelled harmful drinkers – who are doing themselves potentially lethal damage, figures seen by the Guardian show.

This claim is based on the government's scientifically insupportable drinking guidelines which classify moderate drinkers as hazardous drinkers. 19 per cent of Britons supposedly fall under that category. The Guardian doesn't bother to mention that this percentage has been falling for years. (It will soon rise now that guidelines have been lowered - that was the whole point.) In any case, it should not be surprising that people who drink quite a bit consume a larger proportion of the nation's alcohol than people who don't drink very much.

Separate work in progress from Sheffield University helps to establish the value of this custom to the industry. In 2013, the data shows, 38.2% of the value of alcohol sales in England came from risky drinkers and 24.5% from harmful drinkers. Industry sales in the UK were £45.5bn in 2013.

The Sheffield University researchers are not named but I'll take a wild stab in the dark and guess that they are the same small team of academics who came up with the hopeless minimum pricing model and the laughable new drinking guidelines. If so, how nice of them to share unpublished research with a hardcore anti-alcohol lobby group for propaganda purposes, just as they shared unpublished research with Panorama for propaganda purposes (research that was so utterly inept that the programme had to be re-edited to remove it.) It's almost as if those guys are activists rather than impartial academics, isn't it?

It's not too difficult to estimate how much alcohol 'hazardous drinkers' consume so even the Sheffield mob have a good chance of not totally ballsing up the figures. All the numbers in the Guardian article are in the same ballpark as one would expect if the drinks industry was like any other industry. About 25 per cent of drinkers are buying about 70 per cent of the drinks. The question is 'So what?'

Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “It comes as no surprise to learn the drinks industry relies on excessive consumption of alcohol to boost its profits. Why else would alcohol producers spend millions of pounds on advertising each year encouraging people to drink more...

Aside from the fact that it is illegal for alcohol advertisements to 'encourage people to drink more', the 'why else would they do it?' argument against advertising is just dumb, as I explained on the IEA blog recently...

‘If advertising doesn’t work, why do companies spend so much money on it?’ This is the zinger that is supposed to end all argument about whether marketing increases the consumption of certain products. The products under discussion are usually things that one side of the argument would prefer people did not buy and, to that end, think should not be advertised.

One can reply by saying that advertising is not coercive. One can point out that no amount of advertising can sell a bad product. One can argue that advertising is primarily aimed at making users of a product switch to a different brand. You can explain any of this, but the retort will always be the same. “Ah, but if advertising didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it!”

For example, an organisation called Alcohol Action Ireland currently wishes to ban alcohol sponsorship in sports. ‘Alcohol sponsorship of sports works in terms of increasing sales and, as a result, alcohol consumption,’ it asserts. ‘If it didn’t the alcohol industry simply would not spend so much money on it.’ They assume that the drinks industry hopes and expects advertising to increase consumption.

However, advertisers are not spending their money as an industry, but as rival firms trying to sell their own brands. Their battle for market share may or may not coincide with a growing market for alcohol as a whole, but an individual company does not need a growing market in order to become more profitable. There are plenty of heavily advertised products in markets that are static or declining. Imagine ‘Toilet Paper Action’ Ireland declaring that ‘Toilet paper advertising works in terms of increasing sales and, as a result, toilet paper consumption. If it didn’t Andrex simply wouldn’t spend so much money on it.’ Such a statement would be patently absurd.

It also happens to be a fact that alcohol advertising does not make people drink more. It only encourages people to buy different brands (or stay loyal to the brand they already buy).

It is futile trying to explain this to the morons of 'public health'. They fundamentally do not understand how business works. Speaking of morons, look who else the Guardian approached for a comment...

Gerard Hastings, professor of social marketing at Stirling University, said the data “throws into relief the conflict of interest between industry and public health. Industry is driven by the need to sell as much as it possibly can. Ultimately the marketing department rules the waves.”

No, Gerard. Industry is driven by the need to make as much profit as it possibly can. It can do so when sales are in decline, as has been the case in the alcohol industry for the last decade. It's not about volume, it's about margins. Someone should have explained this to Sarah Boseley before she wrote a front page story that confuses revenue with profit.

Brown said evidence from Canada showed that a 10% increase in alcohol prices led to a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths.

Brown is the director of an organisation that used to be called the UK Temperance Alliance. These people say a lot of things, many of them untrue. Journalists are suppose to find out whether the things they are told by lobby groups stand up against the facts. The claim that alcohol-related deaths fell by 32 per cent in Canada is emphatically not true.

Incredibly, this is one of seven Booze Britain articles in the Guardian today. One of them claims that 'up to 35 per cent of A & E visits in the north-east are alcohol-related'. This is based on an unpublished report from another neo-temperance group, the wholly state-funded Balance North East. The 35 per cent figure is at odds with a recent, published study that found the figure in Newcastle to be 12 to 15 per cent. As a rule of thumb, anyone who prefixes a statistic with the words 'up to' is trying it on.

Most of the articles claim that there are more than one million alcohol-related hospital admissions and assert that this has doubled in ten years. This is based on a ridiculously broad definition of 'alcohol-related' which includes primary and secondary diagnoses. As I explained in Alcohol and the Public Purse, secondary diagnoses are more likely to be recorded than in the past and the broad measure gives many false positives...

Under what the ONS calls the ‘broad measure’, there are admissions which involve people who have a partly or wholly alcohol-attributable condition as a secondary diagnosis but who were attending hospital for a condition that was not alcohol-related. For example, if someone who happened to have hypertension went to hospital for treatment of a virus, this would be counted as an alcohol-related admission (or, to be precise, a fraction of an alcohol-related admission) because hypertension is sometimes caused by alcohol use.

Moreover, clinicians are more likely to record a secondary diagnosis than they were in the past, leading to ‘artificial inflation over time due to changes unrelated to the actual occurrence of disease’  and implausibly large increases in putative costs. For example, if taken at face value, the most recent NHS cost estimate showed a 67 per cent rise in the cost of alcohol-related hospital admissions in the space of just three years... These runaway costs, which coincided with a steep decline in alcohol consumption, are an almost inevitable result of including admissions for which alcohol was not the primary diagnosis. It reflects little more than the ageing population, coding drift, and the increased use of hospitals (the number of finished consultant episodes’ in English hospitals for all causes rose from 12 million to 18 million between 2001 and 2013).

The broad measure is so unreliable that the Department of Health no longer uses it. 'Public health' lobbyists still use it because it gives them a bigger number and, as ever, they don't care about the truth.

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