Friday 3 February 2017

Cider and lies

The Alcohol Health Alliance are calling for higher taxes on strong cider again. Thanks to the peculiarities of Britain's alcohol duty system, it is true that cider is somewhat under-taxed.While beer is taxed at around 18p per unit and spirits are taxed at 28p per unit, cider is taxed at 8p per unit, unless it is 'strong' in which case it is taxed at 7p per unit, unless it is sparkling in which case it is taxed at 34p per unit.

This is not very logical, to say the least, but British cider makers have a lot of influence in the marginal constituencies of the south-west. In 2011, the government responded to concerns about street drinking by taxing strong beer and cider - defined as anything over 7.5% - at a higher rate. Predictably, this led to a glut of ciders being produced at exactly 7.5%.

The Alcohol Health Alliance therefore have a point about some ciders being undertaxed. A rational tax system would raise tax on cider and lower tax on other drinks. Ideally, all units of alcohol would be taxed at a rate that allowed the government to claw back the £3.9 billion it spends in England dealing with alcohol-related crime and ill health.

This would require a unit tax of 9p, but that is not what the AHA are demanding because they are not concerned about having an equitable tax system, they just want to stop people drinking. They naively believe that if you put up the price of the drinks favoured by alcoholics and street drinkers, you will tackle alcoholism and street drinking.

But, unless you tax alcohol by the unit, there will always be one drink that is cheaper than another and that is the drink that people with alcohol problems will gravitate to. It used to be meths and hard liquor, then it was strong beer. These days it is strong cider. If taxing strong cider makes some other drink become the cheapest choice, that is what people will turn to.

You don't address the causes of alcohol problems by making certain drinks more expensive. All that happens is that people with alcohol problems have less money for other things. As the apocryphal Russian father said to his son when the boy asked him if Gorbachev's tax on vodka means that he would stop drinking: 'No, it means that you will stop eating.'

This being the Alcohol Health Alliance, the demands for higher taxes rest their head on a pillow of lies. There are too many falsehoods and half-truths in their press release to fisk in detail but two whoppers stand out:

... one in five of all hospital admissions are alcohol related, while 70-80% of people attending A&E at peak times have been drinking.

Where do they get this stuff from? The Office for National Statistics says there were 1.1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2014/15 under the 'broad measure' - and it is a very broad measure indeed. Under the more credible narrow measure, there were 330,000 admissions, of which just over 100,000 were wholly attributable to alcohol.

In the same year, there were 18.7 million hospital admissions, so alcohol-related admissions made up 1.8 per cent of the total or, if you insist on using the broad measure, 5.9 per cent. Neither figure is anywhere near 'one in five'.

As for '70-80% of people attending A & E at peak times have been drinking', this seems to be aimed at perpetuating the tabloid myth that Friday and Saturday nights are peak times for A & E. In fact, they see fewer attendances than average, as I explained in Alcohol and the Public Purse...

Friday and Saturday nights are not the busiest time for A & E departments. For example, in 2012/13 there was an average of 182,612 A & E attendances between 11am and noon on Tuesdays, compared to 73,738 attendances between 11pm and midnight on Saturdays. 

Even if weekend evenings were 'peak time', there is no evidence that 70-80% of attendances are alcohol-related. 'Public health' charlatans sometimes point to a study of A & E services in Newcastle to claim that over 70% of weekend attendances are alcohol-related but this is piffle. The study actually showed that fewer than 20% of weekend attendees had been drinking, with 12-15% being the overall weekly average. The number of attendees who had been drinking only exceeded 50% for a few hours between midnight and 4am at the weekend, but this is not 'peak time' and most sober are asleep at this time. Furthermore, the mere fact that the attendees had been drinking does not automatically mean that they were there for an 'alcohol-related' reason.

So, basically, the Alcohol Health Alliance are lying. No change there, then.

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