Saturday, 24 June 2017

Alcohol consumption in Scotland

There has been some discussion in recent years about alcohol consumption being on the rise in Scotland. Naturally, the 'public health' lobby and the SNP have said that this makes the case for higher taxes/minimum pricing/advertising bans even stronger. For example, here's Alcohol Research UK (which has since merged with Alcohol Concern):

NHS Scotland have published updated sales figures for alcohol in Scotland. These suggest that a decline in alcohol consumption since the mid-2000s has started to reverse. Between 2005 and 2013, consumption per head of population in Scotland fell by 9.4%. Since then, however, it has risen by just under 2%. We don’t know yet if this small increase is the start of a longer upswing, but it suggests that industry efforts to stem the reduction in drinking may be starting to have an effect.

What were these 'industry efforts to stem the reduction in drinking'? Who knows, but the *ahem* totally impartial Alcohol Research UK concluded that...

...if Governments wish to make the recent downturn sustainable, then they will need to fend off growing calls from industry for further tax cuts.

The BBC reported a slight rise in alcohol consumption in August 2015, saying:

Alcohol sales in Scotland increase

Alcohol sales in Scotland increased last year, according to the latest figures.

An NHS report said the equivalent of 41 bottles of vodka or 114 bottles of wine per adult were sold in 2014.

The Scottish government said the figures reinforced the need for minimum unit pricing.

Of course they did. Indeed, the Scottish government put out its own press release saying: 'Alcohol sales increased slightly during 2014, reinforcing the need for minimum unit pricing to tackle the sale of cheap, strong alcohol.'

At least the SNP admitted that consumption had only risen 'slightly'. The Beeb didn't bother to say how much consumption had risen by, presumably because it was marginal - from 10.6 litres to 10.7 litres per capita. But when it rose slightly again the following year (to 10.8 litres), the Beeb followed up on the 'story', with the usual editorialising from pressure groups:

Adults in Scotland have increased their consumption of alcohol for the second year in a row, according to a report.

NHS Health Scotland said the trend was mainly down to more alcohol being bought in supermarkets and off-licences - particularly beer and wine.

Sales in 2015 were 20% higher in Scotland than they were in England and Wales, with each adult consuming the equivalent of 477 pints of beer.

Alcohol Focus Scotland said the country had become a "nation of home drinkers".

The Scottish government said the report supported the case for minimum pricing.

Meanwhile, Alcohol Focus Scotland called for higher alcohol prices and restricted availability because 'the downward trend in sales has now stalled' and James Morris at Alcohol Policy UK declared that 'NHS Scotland's latest report on alcohol sales data indicates an end to the downward trend in alcohol consumption.'

However, new figures published this week show that alcohol consumption in Scotland fell to 10.5 litres in 2016 and is now at its lowest level since the mid-1990s:

If a rise of 0.1 litres is enough to garner headlines, you'd think that a fall of 0.3 litres would be newsworthy, but you'd be wrong. The drop in consumption was barely mentioned by the journalists who covered the latest figures. The Scotsman didn't mention it at all in its story which was headlined 'Scots buying enough alcohol to push population over drinking guidelines'. Nor did STV, which used the headline 'Alcohol death rates six times higher in poorest areas'.

The media were taking their cue from NHS Scotland who put out a press release titled 'Scotland's alcohol problems persists' saying that per capita consumption was 10.5 litres in 2016 and comparing this to England (where consumption is always lower). The press release mainly focused on the number of people who die from excessive drinking.

The press release did mention that the 'increase in population consumption in Scotland between 2013 and 2015 did not continue, with sales per adult returning to a similar level as in 2013' (in fact, they were lower than in 2013), but only the BBC reported this, albeit only in passing...

Sales of alcohol per adult per week were 17% greater in Scotland than in England and Wales - although the rate, which had increased between 2013 and 2015, returned to a similar level as in 2013.

That was the Beeb's only reference to the trend. The rest of the article took the NHS's line...

Alcohol-linked deaths '54% higher in Scotland'

An average of 22 people a week died from alcohol-related causes in Scotland in 2015, figures show.

The figure is 54% higher than in England and Wales.

And, as always, there were plenty of column inches for anyone who wanted to rip off drinkers: 

Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell, said: "This report shows that, whilst some progress has been made in tackling alcohol misuse, we need to do more.

"Over the last few years, more than half of alcohol sold in supermarkets and off-licences was sold at less than 50p per unit and enough alcohol was sold in the off-trade alone to exceed the weekly drinking guideline by a considerable amount.

"That is why we need minimum unit pricing, which will largely impact on the off-trade and will increase the price of the cheap, high-strength alcohol."

Alcohol Focus Scotland chief executive Alison Douglas, said: "Alcohol is so cheap and widely available that it's easy to forget how it can damage our health.

"We need to introduce this long-delayed policy as soon as possible to improve Scotland's health, cut crime and save lives."

Unlike England, Scotland officially endorses the Whole Population Approach, a daft but convenient fantasy in which heavy drinkers magically reduce their consumption of alcohol if the rest of society drinks less. This theory has never been supported by evidence but it gives 'public health professionals' free rein to lobby for policies that hassle ordinary drinkers instead of doing the hard work of helping alcoholics.

Given Scotland's obsession with per capita alcohol consumption, it's not surprising that campaigners were eager to present a tiny upwards blip as proof that the fall in consumption had 'stalled' and, therefore, required yet more government intervention. Nor is it surprising that they have kept quiet about the latest figures.

But whatever happens to the trend in the future, it is clear that the rate of alcohol consumption is irrelevant to the neo-temperance lobby. If it rises, it shows the need for minimum pricing. If it falls, it shows the need for minimum pricing. If it rises, it's a news story. If it falls, they find another angle. There is no way for drinkers to win.

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