Why Rooney Anand is talking rubbish on minimum alcohol pricing

I was disappointed and angry to see Rooney Anand, chief executive of Greene King, calling in the Daily Telegraph last week for minimum unit pricing for alcohol. Disappointed because the arguments for minimum unit pricing have been totally debunked, and Mr Anand should really have known he was talking rubbish – or his advisers should have told him. Angry because I cannot understand why he is using his position as boss of one of the largest brewers and pub operators in the country to promote the agenda of the neoprohibitionists for whom minimum unit pricing is but a small step on the way to totally restricting the sale of alcohol.

“Binge drinking continues to adversely affect our nation,” Anand cried, insisting that we have a “growing culture of irresponsible drinking”. And yet since 2004 there has been an 18.9% fall in alcohol consumption per head and consumption is now at its lowest level this century. Violent crime linked to alcohol has fallen by 32% since 2004 and by 47% since 1995. Where is your evidence for a “growing culture of irresponsible drinking”? Since 2005 the number of men “binge drinking” (a dubious concept in its own right, as I pointed out here) has fallen by 17%; the number of women binge drinking has fallen by 23%; and binge drinking among 16 to 24-year-olds has fallen by 31% among men and by 34% among women. In 2012-13, alcohol consumption in England and Wales fell by 2.1% year-on-year, to its lowest level since 1990. “When it is possible to walk into a shop and buy a bottle of beer for less than a bottle of water, it is no surprise that, as a nation, we are moving in the wrong direction in our relationship with and consumption of alcohol,” Anand asserts. So a fall of almost a fifth in alcohol consumption in the past ten years is a move in the wrong direction, Rooney? Or do you not actually know that consumption is falling? Incidentally, that fall of nearly a fifth in alcohol consumption is actually far more than its proponents claimed would have been achieved by introducing minimum pricing. Oh, and it’s NOT possible to buy a bottle of beer for less than the price of a bottle of water, and never has been, unless you are talking about the most expensive designer water.

The first mash at the new Greene King brewhouse, Bury St Edmunds, 1939

The first mash at the new Greene King brewhouse, Bury St Edmunds, 1939

Anand goes on to claim that a 50p minimum unit price “could” reduce the costs to the NHS caused by alcoholic overindulgence by “as much as” £417m a year. Ignoring the two sets of weasel words there – “could” and “as much as”, the use of which sucks all the veracity out of his claim– it’s a pathetic claim anyway. £417m equals 31p per household per week. Big swing.

Next up, Anand references “a recent study by the University of Sheffield” which “indicated that minumum unit pricing” would have a larger positive impact on those in poverty, particularly high risk drinkers. Allegedly, minimum unit pricing “targets those prone to binge drinking, with their consumption expected to fall 7% through raising the price of approximately 30% of units sold to harmful drinkers.” But as Paul Chase, author of the excellent book Culture Wars and Moral Panic: The Story of Alcohol and Society (I’ve nicked all the stats here from him), has pointed out, “the Sheffield minimum pricing model is based on absurd assumptions, such as the belief that heavy drinkers are much more price-sensitive than moderate drinkers, and assumptions made about the price-elasticity of demand for alcohol that are at odds with what economic research and common sense tell us about the relationship between price and consumption.” To fill that out: there is no evidence at all that making drink dearer for heavy, problem drinkers will stop them drinking as much as they already do. Indeed, it seems more than likely that what will happen is that they will cut down on expenditure elsewhere in order to find the money to carry on drinking as much as ever.

Anand calls the failure to introduce a minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland “disappointing”. But Scotland’s attempt to introduce minimum pricing hasn’t gone through because it is currently the subject of an investigation by the European Court of Justice, which is likely to give its decision on whether the proposal is legal, or breaks EU competition law, only at the end of 2015 or early in 2016. Expert betting is that it will be ruled illegal.

It is hard not to assume that Anand is backing the idea of minimum unit pricing because he thinks that it makes him appear on the side of the “good guys”, despite being a producer of “demon alcohol”. Perhaps, too, he thinks that minimum unit pricing will hurt the supermarkets more than it will the brewers and pub owners, and for that reason it’s a Good Thing. But he really needs to think about who he is getting into bed with by promoting minimum unit pricing. These are people prepared to lie and distort to promote their aims – the claim that “up to” 35% of A&E admissions are “alcohol-related”, for example, which is completely made up, of the equally preposterous claim that “Alcohol misuse hands a hefty annual bill of £21bn to UK taxpayers”, which is, again, based on unverifiable guesses and false reasoning. But the anti-alcohol lobby genuinely doesn’t care if its statistics aren’t true. It only wants to see its policies adopted, because it thinks it knows best what is good for all of us. To quote Paul Chase again: “Public discourse on alcohol is dominated by an absolutist, loony-left dominated, alcophobic public health movement that has become a vehicle for Big Business bashing.” Really, Rooney, do you think you should be promoting a policy these people want?

Why Sir Liam Donaldson is a tosser

It was good to see the Government getting its retaliation in first, and dumping all over the Chief Medical Officer’s proposal for a minimum 50p-a-unit price for alcoholic drinks. Even before the annual report from Sir Liam Donaldson, on the nation’s health had been officially published, The Times was reporting that “a source close to the Prime Minister” (doubtless speaking in a soft Fifeshire accent) had declared: “The majority of sensible drinkers should not have to pay the price for the irresponsible and excessive drinking by a small minority.”

Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Much of Sir Liam’s argument seems to be heavy on assertion and light on evidence. He claims that Britain has “a spiralling drink problem”. He invents an entirely bogus concept, “passive drinking”, which is supposed to reflect the effects on people of drinking by others, and which is clearly meant to have the associations that “passive smoking” has. But “passive drinking” doesn’t exist: it’s not the drinking of others that people are victims of, it’s others’ aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour. And aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour aren’t caused by drink, they’re caused by poverty, lack of opportunity and crippled expectations. Raising the price of drink won’t solve those problems.

Sir Liam’s report, available here, declares that” Every week, two thirds of adults in England drink alcohol”, so that’s about 45 million people, but then says that “alcohol is immensely harmful. In 2006, 16,236 people died from alcohol-related causes.” In other words, every year alcohol kills 0.035 per cent of the people that use it. In addition, there are half a million deaths a year in the UK – so alcohol-related deaths make up just 3 per cent or so of the total. “Immensely harmful”? I’d suggest not.

The report goes on to assert that “Alcohol has a major impact on individual drinkers’ health.” No – it adversely affects the health of only a tiny minority. “It causes cancers of the liver, bowel, breast, throat, mouth, larynx and oesophagus; it causes osteoporosis; and it reduces fertility.” Yes, but in each case it increases the risk by only a tiny amount. For example, of women who don’t drink, 9.6 per cent get breast cancer; of women who do drink, 10.7 per cent do. In other words, one woman in a hundred gets breast cancer because she drinks. The same is true of other cancers: if you drink, it increases your chances of cancer by a tiny percentage. That does not, I suggest, justify the scare headlines in, for example, today’s Guardian that “no level of alcohol is safe”.

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