Sunday 9 June 2019

Panorama and alcohol, a toxic combination

A few weeks ago I was asked by BBC Panorama to do an interview about alcohol. Panorama has an atrocious history of making one-sided, error-riddled programmes about booze which amount to temperance propaganda. However, the new episode is hosted by Adrian Chiles, who I have always quite liked and who made a half-decent documentary about his own drinking last year, so I thought there was a glimmer of hope of it being reasonably objective and I agreed to the interview.

That hope was quickly snuffed out when he gave a speech to the fanatics of the Alcohol Health Alliance a few days after we met and I have since been told that my interview won’t feature in the programme at all.

To end all doubt, Chiles has written an article for The Observer in which he implicitly blames the alcohol industry for him drinking above the guidelines and portrays those guidelines as evidence-based (which they are not).

Judging by the article - and my unaired interview - the Panorama show tomorrow will be mainly about labelling, with Chiles concluding that the booze industry is lying to its customers by not advertising the new, evidence-free guidelines on their products.

People should be able to drink what they like, but they should do so with complete information. And that’s something the industry seems intent on keeping from us.

Consider a pub, with its long row of beer taps. On some you will see the percentage of alcohol in the beer. But why doesn’t it tell you how many units of alcohol there are in a pint? For that matter, why doesn’t it also tell you how many calories there are?

This, I think, is fair enough and I said so when he asked me about it. I don’t think it would make much difference to how much people drink - let’s face it, Chiles was smashing the old guidelines so there’s no reason to think he would abide by the new ones - but I’m not against consumers having information.

Labelling on beer taps doesn’t strike me as a big enough issue to justify 30 minutes of primetime television, but it gets worse when he actively defends the new guidelines...

In 2016 our chief medical officers set the safe drinking guidelines at a new lower level – 14 units a week for both men and women. Three years later, on the vast majority of products we looked at for Panorama, most producers still aren’t seeing fit to mention this. 

Good. No company should put manifestly untrue information on its products.

Small wonder that fewer than one in five of us are aware of the crucial 14-unit figure, as it’s on hardly any packaging at all. In most cases, the old advice – 28 units for men and 21 for women – is all you’ll get.

That’s not what is shown on most alcohol packaging. The guidelines haven’t been 28 units for men and 21 units for women since the 1980s. Most alcohol bottles and cans show daily guidelines with a warning to not regularly exceed them. Fairly sound advice.

As regular readers know, the new 14 unit guideline for both sexes has no empirical evidence to support it and was created in a demonstrably corrupt process. If Panorama was interested in investigative journalism, rather than being a mouthpiece for special interest groups, this is the story it would cover. Instead...

As for the 14-unit weekly safe drinking guidance, for what it’s worth – unlike many in the alcohol business – I choose to believe the conclusions of countless studies by scientists all over the world.

Utter guff. Not a single epidemiological study supports the 14 unit limit whereas countless studies show that people can consume around 30 units a week and still have a lower risk of mortality than a teetotaller. The only evidence for 14 units is a modelling effort from the hired guns at Sheffield University whom Public Health England paid to change their methodology at the eleventh hour because their original modelling supported the previous guidelines. Chiles’ claim is the exact opposite of the truth.

One piece of junk science from Sheffield is not enough for Adrian, so he doubles down by claiming that...

...most of the industry’s profits have to come from the other 30% of us. We need to keep pretty hard at it for them. If we were all to drop our drinking to safe levels, those profits would be hit to the tune of well over £10bn.

This can only be a reference to a laughable study published last August which claimed that alcohol revenues (not profits) would fall by £13 billion if all drinkers consumed exactly 14 units a week each.

I wrote about this economically illiterate piece of garbage at the time (see here and here). In short, the UK booze industry doesn’t make anything approaching £10 billion of profit so it cannot possibly lose ‘well over £10bn’. (You’d hope that someone who used to present a TV show about business could have worked that out for himself.) The authors of the study confused revenues with profits and ignored production costs and taxation. It should never have been published. In any serious academic field, it wouldn’t have been.

I hope the fact-checking is going to be better in the show itself, but despite Panorama getting itself in hot water in 2012 when it took a dodgy alcohol statistic on trust (yes, it was those lads at Sheffield Uni again), I have a feeling that it won’t be.

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