Public health’s Pravda

The mainstream media are spreading nanny-state fake news.

Christopher Snowdon

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Topics Politics UK

The evidence for minimum alcohol pricing has always existed in a fantasy netherworld of theoretical modelling and dubious assumptions. This was almost forgivable when the policy was still a glint in the eye of the ‘public health’ lobby. But the way the media have treated the handful of hard facts that have emerged since minimum pricing came into force in Scotland in May 2018 has been an embarrassment to journalism.

It is important to remember that minimum pricing was presented as the single most effective means of tackling alcohol-related harm. This point needs underlining because the Scottish government fought and won a court case on this basis. If there had been a better way of preventing alcohol-related deaths, minimum pricing would have violated EU competition law. Nicola Sturgeon’s government won the case thanks to some computer modelling by academics at the University of Sheffield who made some very specific predictions about what would happen in Scotland under minimum pricing. In the first year alone, they claimed there would be a 3.5 per cent drop in alcohol consumption, 58 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 1,299 fewer hospital admissions.

After spending a decade fighting for the policy, both the Scottish government and the ‘public health’ lobby need minimum pricing to be seen as a success. Wales is committed to introducing it in March 2020 and Ireland has promised to follow suit. Minimum pricing in Scotland is not just an experiment — it is a precedent.

If minimum pricing is a world-leading public-health policy, as the SNP and its friends in the state-funded temperance movement claim, we should have seen some evidence of it by now. It is surely not asking too much for a policy that is costing Scottish drinkers tens of millions of pounds a year to produce some sort of step change in alcohol consumption and mortality trends.

And yet the evidence to date suggests that it has been an expensive flop. Official statistics published in June showed a 2.9 per cent decline in per capita alcohol consumption in 2018, close to the 3.5 per cent reduction predicted by the Sheffield model, but hardly unusual. Alcohol consumption has been on a downward trajectory in Scotland for a decade and minimum pricing wasn’t even in force for the first four months of the year. Nevertheless, the decline was presented as a triumph for higher alcohol prices. The headline in The Times read, ‘Minimum pricing policy for alcohol has sobering effect’.

But the point of minimum pricing is not to reduce alcohol consumption per se. It is meant to reduce alcohol-related mortality, and the Sheffield model explicitly predicted results in the first year. A week after the news of declining consumption was reported everywhere, the same set of government statistics showed a rise in the number of alcohol-related deaths in 2018. Not a single newspaper or broadcaster felt this was worthy of coverage.

The mortality data did not go unnoticed by everybody, however. Dr Ewan Forrest, a long-standing advocate of minimum pricing, trawled through the figures and saw that although there had been a 1.4 per cent rise in alcohol-related deaths in Scotland as a whole, there were significant regional differences. The increase was 35 per cent in Aberdeenshire, for example, and 71 per cent in Falkirk. But there were also places where there had been a decline. In Glasgow, the number of deaths had fallen by 21 per cent and so, in September, Dr Forrest mentioned the Glasgow statistic at a conference and suggested that minimum pricing was responsible for the decline. The conference organisers sent out a press release to that effect and, despite the obvious cherry-picking, it was lapped up by the media.

Within hours, ITV was running a story under the headline ‘Alcohol-related deaths “cut by more than 20 per cent with minimum pricing”’ and the BBC was getting excited about the ‘publication [sic] of evidence suggesting MUP [minimum unit pricing] has had a significant impact on drinking patterns’. In the Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon cited the factoid as proof that ‘the policy is working and is saving lives and improving health for people across the country’.

As if to prove that torturing the data will make it confess to anything, a study in the British Medical Journal was published a few days later claiming that alcohol bought from the off-trade fell by 7.6 per cent in the first eight months of minimum pricing. Whatever methods were used to arrive at this figure, the end result bore no relation to reality. Sales data from IRI, a retail analyst, show more alcohol going through the tills of Scottish shops in the first nine months of minimum pricing than in the same period the previous year. Estimates from the UK’s other main retail analyst, Nielsen, also show a slight rise. Nevertheless, it was the outlandish claim from the BMJ that received blanket news coverage.

This week, the publication of alcohol-related mortality figures by the Office for National Statistics gave the media another chance to pick up on the rise in deaths in Scotland. The ONS dataset is particularly illuminating because it covers the whole of Britain. If the death rate had risen more sharply in England and Wales, it would have provided a partial fig leaf for the failure of minimum pricing. Alas for the policy’s supporters, alcohol-related deaths fell appreciably in both countries.

This was the one thing advocates of minimum pricing didn’t want to happen. But they needn’t have worried because the BBC came to the rescue with a news report worthy of that old Soviet rag, Pravda. Under the astonishing headline ‘Alcohol death rates dropping in Scotland’, an anonymous BBC reporter wrote that deaths related to alcohol ‘have dropped in Scotland in the past 10 years’. This, supposedly, ‘gave cause for optimism that minimum unit pricing was working’.

Scotland’s alcohol-related death rate may be lower than it was 10 years ago. But this is due to a steep drop between 2006 and 2012. The BBC failed to mention that this decline was followed by a steady rise, with the rate falling in only one year since (2017, the year before minimum pricing began). The claim that the death rate is ‘dropping’ is patently false and the suggestion that minimum pricing could be responsible for a period of decline that ended six years before it was introduced is preposterous.

Nobody claims that evidence from one calendar year, in which the policy was only in place for eight months, is conclusive. But the story being fed to the public could not be further from the truth. Sales figures suggest that minimum pricing has had little or no effect on alcohol consumption and official statistics show a rise in alcohol-related mortality in Scotland, which holds up regardless of whether you compare it with the previous year or with the rest of Britain.

The Scottish government is being given an exceptionally easy ride. Every crumb of evidence suggesting that minimum pricing is ‘working’ is hyped beyond reason while a stronger body of evidence to the contrary is ignored, downplayed or turned on its head. When the national broadcaster presents a rise in mortality as a decline, and the media show more interest in a conference presentation than in a national statistic, the chances of the truth filtering through to the public look bleak. It seems that no matter what the evidence says, we will be told that minimum pricing has been a success.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also the co-host of Last Orders, spiked’s nanny-state podcast.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Ed Turnbull

6th December 2019 at 7:54 am

Further evidence, were any actually, needed that those who believe their cause is right and just will happily sacrifice Realfacts (truth / reality) for Goodfacts (lies / propaganda). That kind of ‘ends justifies the means’ mentality in public servants (and how often they forget the ‘servant’ part of their designation) troubles me, for it leads, almost inevitably, to the gulag, the gas chamber and the killing fields.

I have a number of (supposedly) freedom-loving friends that support the SNP, and when I question how their desire for liberty squares with voting for such a monstrously illiberal party the answer’s invariably the same: the SNP are a means to an end. At which point I caution them to remember the old adage about heeding the reach of one’s cutlery when supping with Beelzebub…

James Knight

5th December 2019 at 4:44 pm

They have learned from the climate scare: it is the same MO of “policy driven evidence building”. Look at clouds long enough and eventually you can see the face of Jesus.

It won’t be long before they will offer some “alternative facts” to justify minimum pricing.

NEIL DATSON

5th December 2019 at 9:56 am

Interesting article, and I’m not surprised to learn that the mainstream media, which is in many ways a middle class propaganda machine, is gleefully milking the statistics in any and every way that can be made to fit a middle class agenda. Just force up prices on all alcohol pro rata, so that decent quality wine goes up from £10 to £30 a bottle, then see how they like it.

A slightly different point. There was (I’ve heard little of it lately) a move to raise the minimum age of alcohol purchase to 21. In my view it is a nonsense to deny people the right to buy alcohol – presumably on the grounds of mental immaturity – but to grant them the right to vote, a civic duty which demands mature judgement.

Roderick Mackenzie

5th December 2019 at 10:09 am

I live in Russia ( Ufa in the Urals so not Moscow) 6 years ago the Govt increased the minimum pricing that alcohol could be sold at.This led to a large number of deaths due to people buying or consuming illegally made alcohol,the Govt took note of this and reversed the law and the policy.
Also of note,it is not illegal to distil alcohol in Russia but only to sell it.There are shops that sell the copper piping and other things needed to make it.

My wife’s uncle a retired Military man makes wonderful ‘Samagon’ ( Like Slivovitz or Fruit Brandies)
I always bring a litres home after visiting him.

Mark Houghton

5th December 2019 at 8:45 am

“Official statistics published in June showed a 2.9 per cent decline in per capita alcohol consumption in 2018, close to the 3.5 per cent reduction predicted by the Sheffield model, but hardly unusual. Alcohol consumption has been on a downward trajectory in Scotland for a decade and minimum pricing wasn’t even in force for the first four months of the year.”

BUT has the rate of the drop in alcohol consumption increased?

I’m not bothered how much people drink provided that the taxpayer doesn’t have to foot the bill but as soon as the poor choices of any group means I have to foot the bill then I get a say.
Disclaimer: I am an alcoholic, Dry for 7 years.

Mike Stallard

5th December 2019 at 8:44 am

I thought I heard that people who cannot afford the Norway type prices in Scotland are now turning to hard drugs like cocaine and heavy cannabis. Is that true?

david rawson

5th December 2019 at 12:26 pm

You’ve obviously never bought a drink in Norway

Lord Anubis

5th December 2019 at 7:09 am

25 Years ago or so, “Home Brewing” was a major thing. My local Boots had a whole department dedicated to it. Not just ingredients but all the equipment too.

(Boots did quite an effective strong Cider kit, which could be enhanced further by adding rather more sugar than the instructions recommended 😉 )

Raise the price of off license booze and I can see this becoming a major thing once again.

(Incidentally, Wilkos does sell home brew kits. Beer Cider and Wine, expect to see more retailers getting into this market in the future if this sort of legislation becomes widespread)

Jerry Owen

5th December 2019 at 9:06 am

Home brewing was a bigger thing decades ago than it is now. I believe it is in decline as people have more disposable income now. I have over the last decade brewed my own beer as well as buying it, however it is never as good as proper ‘brewery beer’ from the big brewers, it always has a ‘homebrew’ taste that isn’t palatable .. I am a real ale drinker BTW.
I have this year given up and disposed of my beer making utensils and indeed beer itself. The big stores sell 4 for six pounds, that is a good deal, why bother with your own efforts, it isn’t massively cheaper and it is a very messy business.
Home brewing will never really take off.. I mean c’mon Wilko and their ‘geordie bitter kits’, how antiquated is that !

Jerry Owen

5th December 2019 at 9:08 am

Meant to say.. interesting article Christopher thanks.

Lord Anubis

5th December 2019 at 9:16 am

That’s kind of my point.

Raise the basic price of booze via “Unit Pricing” and there will be more incentive for people to home brew, and therefore more incentive to provide the products required. (Despite the questionable taste!)

Bear in mind when considering this that if “Unit Pricing” is eventually shown to have failed in its objective to reduce harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption then the standard issue Government response isn’t to realise that it is a failed policy. They will simply say that the pricing wasn’t high enough and now it should be £1/Unit.

Lord Anubis

5th December 2019 at 9:22 am

Oh and PS,

After all, it isn’t as if the people who buy cheap high strength alcohol (White Lightening etc) and who are considered to be the main problem as regards excessive consumption are particularly bothered about the taste anyway!

NEIL DATSON

5th December 2019 at 9:40 am

More than 30 years ago I brewed my own beer, but not from High Street type kits but using a slightly more elaborate process and equipment using ‘proper’ ingredients. The best was every bit as good as my favoured pub ales. But it was a lot of work and the minimum quantity (at about 5 gallons) was far too much for one moderate beer drinker as it was really only just right for about 10 days. I never had any success with bottled beer. As I drink less beer now I can’t imagine being tempted to begin again, whatever happens to the price.

I also knew some people who distilled their own alcohol – but yeuch! The less said the better.

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