Wednesday 19 June 2019

Scottish government spinning last year's alcohol statistics

The newspapers are full of 'good' news stories about minimum pricing today...

Scottish alcohol sales drop as minimum price kicks in (BBC)

Alcohol consumption in Scotland falls to 25-year low following minimum pricing introduction (Telegraph)

Minimum pricing policy for alcohol has sobering effect (Times)

Scottish alcohol sales at lowest level in 25 years after price controls (Guardian)

This seems to contradict previous reports of alcohol sales rising since minimum pricing, and the Scottish government is milking it for all it is worth. So what's the story?

The figures come from Scotland's annual MESAS study and look at the calendar year of 2018. Minimum pricing wasn't introduced until May 2018, so the figures do not show what happened after minimum pricing came in. They show what happened in a year in which minimum pricing was in force for eight months.

Nielsen data show that sales in Scotland went up by every measure - volume, value and units - in the first nine months of minimum pricing. A sharp decline in cider and perry sales was more than offset by a rise in sales in other categories, particularly spirits, lagers and fortified wine, leading to a two per cent increase in the number of units sold overall - a rise of 25 million units. (Unfortunately, these data are not available in full online.)

None of this is irreconcilable with the MESAS figures released today (which are also based on Nielsen data) for two reasons.

Firstly, as mentioned, the MESAS figure is for the whole year and it is quite possible that sales were lower than average in the four months before minimum pricing began.

Secondly, the MESAS figure is - quite properly - an estimate of per capita sales. Per capita figures are obviously affected by population growth. If there has been significant immigration, per capita sales could fall even while overall sales rise.

The MESAS authors say that they use the mid-year population estimates from National Records Scotland. Interestingly, however, those estimates show little population growth between 2017 and 2018. The population rose from 5,424,800 to 5,438,100, a rise of just 0.24 per cent. The more relevant comparison is the adult population but this, too, has only grown slightly, from 4,560,646 to 4,572,359 (0.26 per cent).

Notwithstanding the different time periods involved, the difference between the unit sales figures and the MESAS per capita figures remains unexplained. A set of monthly Nielsen figures covering 2017/18 and 2018/19 would clarify things, but I have yet to see this. (UPDATE: I've been reminded that the Nielsen figures do not include sales from Aldi and Lidl. MESAS estimates sales from these two shops, somehow. This could have an effect.)

In any case, it's worth looking at the trends in the MESAS report. If you only got your information from the BBC, you would think that sales plummeted in 2018 as a result of minimum pricing.

Scottish alcohol sales drop as minimum price kicks in

Scots bought less alcohol in 2018 than any year since records began in the early 1990s, according to a new report.

Hmm, sort of. Last year's MESAS report showed that alcohol consumption was 'at a level similar to that seen in 1994' in 2017, so this is hardly an historic moment. 

Leaving aside the fact that the figures don't actually show what happened after minimum pricing (let alone as a result of minimum pricing), the per capita estimates for 2018 don't show anything special.

Sales in the on-trade declined, as they have done for years (note the sharp decline in the years following the 2006 smoking ban) and sales in the off-trade dipped a bit. The off-trade decline was of the same magnitude of that seen between 2015 and 2016 and was less steep than that seen between 2011 and 2012. 

If you don't recall the BBC reporting those sales declines it's because they didn't, although they did report the rise between 2013 and 2014, perhaps because the Scottish government put out a press release saying that the figures 'reinforce [the] need for minimum unit pricing'. See how it works? 

When the 2016 figures were published, I said...

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.

But that was then, this is now. Today, a fall of exactly 0.3 litres per head is suddenly highly newsworthy because it can be wrongly attributed to a policy that wasn't even in place for a large part of the year in question.

If minimum pricing hadn't been introduced last year, the drop in per capita consumption wouldn't have been reported at all, just as it wasn't when a drop of exactly the same size occurred in 2016. And with good reason: it is neither large nor unusual.

In conclusion, if you want to see what happened to alcohol sales after minimum pricing began, I humbly suggest you look at alcohol sales after minimum pricing began.

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