Thursday, 8 February 2018

Low alcohol drinks lead to more alcohol being drunk, claim cranks

In September 2016, a 'public health' academic named Milica Vasiljevic published a study in Tobacco Control claiming that e-cigarette advertising made children start smoking. This was a heroic over-interpretation of the meagre findings from her survey, but it went down well with the hard of thinking...

(Incidentally, a study published this week concluded that TV advertising of e-cigarettes reduces the number of smokers, so well done to the EU for banning it.)

Now Vasiljevic is back with a study about low-alcohol beverages, as the Daily Mail reports...

Low-alcohol booze ‘can you make you drink more’ as they are marketed for ‘lunchtime’ or ‘all occasions' 

They are seen as the sensible option to enjoy a tipple without going overboard.

But low-alcohol wine and beer may actually lead people to drink more, academics have warned.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge say lower strength drinks are being marketed as drinks for ‘lunchtime’ or ‘all occasions’, which may encourage people to choose them instead of soft drinks.

The study, published in BMC Public Health, is co-authored by Theresa 'beware of big glasses' Marteau and Mark 'muh, Big Alcohol' Petticrew, so it's guaranteed to be of poor quality, but nothing prepared me for quite how bad it was. At least Vasiljevic's e-cigarette study involved talking to children. Her new effort is based entirely on reading product descriptions on supermarket websites. The methodology section contains this small gem:

Disagreements were resolved by discussion until perfect agreement was achieved.

The study doesn't name the brands, but we can work out what some of them are by googling the marketing lines that are quoted. They include Gallo Summer Rose and Foster's Radler, a 5.5% wine and a 2% lager respectively, but they also include Erdinger Alkoholfrei which is an alcohol-free beer, as its name suggests (technically it has a maximum of 0.5% alcohol as it is not possible to remove every drop of alcohol from 'near-beer'). Its inclusion implies that the authors think that the promotion of 0.5% beers leads to 'risky drinking'.

Among the marketing messages that the authors reckon are designed to lure in vulnerable consumers are such scandalous slogans as ‘Perfect for all occasions from a lunchtime barbeque to an evening celebration’, ‘Perfect for nights in and social get-togethers’ and 'For all your trendy patio parties, picnic classics and the good old-fashioned night in with your pals’. They also highlight standard messages on wine labels such as ‘All occasions’, ‘Any occasion’ and ‘Any time’.

If that weren't enough, they also reveal that...

Low/er strength products were also more often marketed with information about their alcohol content.

I should hope so. If companies are going to produce low alcohol drinks, it is only fair that they warn consumers.

To our intrepid researchers, all this can only mean one thing:

Presenting low/er strength alcohol products as suitable for consumption on a wider range of occasions than regular strength products suggests they may be being marketed to replace soft drinks rather than alcohol products of regular strength.

OK. Let's take this in stages.

Firstly, someone searching for beer or wine on a supermarket website is probably not in the market for a soft drink.

Secondly, it is the government's explicit policy - having been lobbied by 'public health' - to reformulate products to make them healthier. Under the Department of Health's Responsibility Deal, the booze industry is committed to producing 'lower alcohol products' as part of the 'alcohol unit reduction' scheme.

Thirdly, the author's claim that low-alcohol drinks are aimed at people who would otherwise drink soft drinks is nothing more than an assertion. In so far as it is based on evidence, it stems from the feeble piece of trivia that none of the regular strength wines they looked up online mentioned lunch whereas 13% of the low-strength wines did.

Fourthly, it should be obvious that a low-strength wine/beer is a closer substitute to regular wine/beer than it is to a glass of water and, therefore, that increased sales of low-strength wine/beer will lead to less alcohol being consumed overall.

In fact, that is exactly what the Department of Health found in its review:

Between 2011 and 2013 the number of units of alcohol in the market has reduced by 1.9 billion. Of this it is estimated that 1.3 billion is due to reductions in the ABV of alcohol products...

But, as I have discussed before, 'public health' fanatics such as Mark Petticrew automatically assume that anything the industry does is suspect unless they are being forced to do it by law...

If it doesn't involve taxing the poor or creating criminal offences, Petticrew isn't interested, and so he invariably concludes that initiatives like the Responsibility Deal don't 'work' whereas heavy-handed and regressive policies do (even when the latter have obviously failed or haven't even been tried).

His findings are therefore highly predictable. Public Health Responsibility Deal on healthy eating? "Could be effective" but needs "food pricing strategies, restrictions on marketing .. and clear penalties". Responsibility Deal for alcohol? Not very effective, needs "law enforcement" to make "alcohol less available and more expensive." Voluntary agreements in general? Can be effective but only when there are "substantial disincentives for non-participation and sanctions for non-compliance", ie. when they are not voluntary. 

You get the picture. For Petticrew, the iron fist is always preferable to the velvet glove.

And so the authors conclude their pisspoor study of websites (sorry, I mean 'content analysis') by saying:

The present findings cast doubt on the industry contention that the development, promotion and marketing of low/er strength alcohol products may reduce alcohol consumption and associated harms. Rather, the present findings add to an existing literature that highlights how measures intended to benefit public health (in this case wider availability of low/er strength alcohol products) may benefit industry to the detriment of the health of the public.

This is pure editorialising. Their study shows nothing of the sort. It does not look at what people drink. It does not attempt to estimate, let alone observe, substitution patterns. It does not even look at how these drinks are marketed in the places that most people buy them in, ie. shops and supermarkets.

It is pure opinion and not a very good opinion at that. There is not a scintilla of evidence that low-alcohol beer and wine lead to greater alcohol consumption or 'the detriment of the health of the public'. On the contrary, evidence and common sense point in the opposite direction.

As with the e-cigarette study, the true believers of the anti-alcohol community love it. Perhaps that's who it's aimed at. A study by cranks for cranks...

This worthless garbage was funded by the supposedly cash-strapped Department of Health.

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