If I took £18 from your pocket but told you that you were now actually better off as a result of my relieving you of your money, because I was giving £34 to the local hospital, you would, I think, decide I was either an idiot or a not very good conman.
This, however, is the sleight of hand being attempted by the militant anti-drink campaigners at the deliberately blandly named Institute of Alcohol Studies in its nonsensical report, published today, insisting that raising alcohol taxes would not “disproportionally” affect the poor, because of the “potential additional funds generated for the NHS”.
The IAS wants higher taxes on alcohol because it believes (or claims to believe) this will help solve “problem” drinking, though in fact there is no evidence this is true. It admits that higher taxes on alcohol “may” hit the poor proportionally harder than the rich (for “may” read “will”’ of course). It has obviously struggled to justify this disproportionate impact, and has decided to pretend that while poorer households would lose £18 a year through higher alcohol taxes, they would gain because there would be £34 per poorer household for the NHS, the extra money made available from higher taxes and, presumably, what it hopes will be less demand on the NHS because of lower alcohol consumption.
It does not explain how it knows this extra money will be there to boost the health service – instead of, as is more likely under the current government, being used to cut corporation tax and/or income tax for higher earners. If it existed at all.
The facts are that the UK already pays some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe, that alcohol consumption in this country has been falling for many years, that most countries in Europe drink more alcohol than we do, and that alcohol remains a net contributor to national happiness, something that the wowsers of the IAS cannot accept.
The Guardian, of course, printed the IAS press release without challenging either the assumptions or the conclusions, and without pointing out that the IAS is fundamentally a temperance organisation, directly descended from 19th century temperance campaigning groups.
Nor did it quote anybody putting forward a dissenting point of view or commenting on the extremely dodgy assumptions behind the IAS’s calculations, such as the utterly evidence-free idea that if you lower total alcohol consumption, “problematic” alcohol consumption will fall as well.
It would be good to hold a proper debate on alcohol consumption in this country, and put to death the many myths that hamper reporting on the subject. Unfortunately the IAS certainly isn’t interested, and neither, it appears, is the Guardian.
Where does the UK stand in the league table for consumption of alcohol per head? You’re probably saying to yourself something like, “oooh, we must be pretty high up – not as much as the Czechs, surely, they’re notorious for knocking back the pilsner, and I bet the Poles still drink lots of vodka, and doesn’t little Luxembourg have some weirdly high consumption per head figure because all its neighbours pop across the border to buy cheap booze? So, I dunno, fourth?”
If you’ve caught any of the neoprohibitionist nonsense from organisations such as the Institute for Alcohol Studies – descended directly from the International Order of Good Templars, a campaigning temperance group founded in the 1850s – and the Alcohol Health Alliance, both currently crowing because they have managed to persuade the Scots to adopt minimum unit pricing of alcohol, and both pushing hard to have the same policy adopted in England and Wales, then you’ve probably subconsciously absorbed the idea that here in this green and sceptical isle we drink lots and lots, enough to have a problem about it, and certainly more than most others.
In fact, on average, we don’t. And in fact, on average, the UK comes 25th out of a list of 27 European countries for alcohol consumption per head (*). Third from bottom. Not “qualifying for the Champions League” levels at all – “relegation into the Championship” levels. Of the other nine leading economies in the world, only three – China, Japan and India – drink less alcohol per head than the UK does. The Germans drink more than 40 per cent more alcohol per head than we do. The French drink 24 per cent more. Even the United States drinks slightly more, at 7.1 litres of pure alcohol equivalent per head, against the UK’s 7 litres (all 2015 figures).
Other statistics also show that the UK today is a relatively sober nation. Overall alcohol consumption is 9 per cent down on 2001. Convictions for drunkenness are barely a third of the level they were even in the Second World War, when beer was weak, wine and spirits unavailable and your local pub, if it hadn’t been bombed to bits, was shut because of rationing; and only a tenth of what they were in 1973, when we all had long hair and loon pants and a pint cost 15p (though current statistics have probably been affected by the rise in fixed penalty notices). The number of positive breath tests has dropped two thirds since 1980, and more than halved since 2000. The percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who have ever had an alcoholic drink is down by more than a third since 2001, and the percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who had an alcoholic drink “in the last week” had plunged by more than two thirds.
None of this matters to the wowsers of the Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, however. They point to the fact that some people abuse alcohol, and they have convinced themselves that the answer to that is the nonsensical “whole-population model”, which claims that if you lower total alcohol consumption, then “problematic” alcohol consumption will fall as well. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence to show this is true.
What is more, the figures from the Sheffield Alcohol Pricing Model, which was put together by academics at the University of Sheffield, and has been used to justify the introduction of minimum unit pricing, look instinctively ridiculous and untenable: the model claims that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol (a unit being 10ml/8gm of pure C2H5OH) would result in a “harmful” drinker, defined as someone who drinks 50 units a week (equivalent to just under three pints of medium-strength beer a day) cutting back consumption by half a pint a day, or increasing their spending by £2.88 a week. That’s less than the price of two corner-shop sandwiches: some deterrent.
The Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, of course, say it’s not just about the heavy drinkers, that minimum unit pricing will also make the moderate drinker cut back, by two thirds of a unit for men and half a unit for women, per week. That’s cutting back by a fifth of a standard glass of red wine for women, and just over a quarter of a glass of wine for men. Per week. This, they claim, will “slash” the occurrence of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
“This is really all about symbolism and control. Once government becomes the ‘price-giver’ for the licensed trade, the image of alcohol as ‘no ordinary product’, and as something dangerous that we all need protecting from, becomes official policy. The Medical Temperance view of alcohol is in the ascendance. Their view chimes with government – not least because it gives [governments] a health-concern smokescreen behind which they can introduce what is nothing more than a sin tax.”
Minimum unit pricing is apparently now under consideration for England. If you want to stop this nannying and pointless nonsense, support Drinkers’ Voice, follow it on Twitter, and help campaign to be able to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, moderately and sensibly.
In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.
But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.
Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:
“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”
Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.
“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”
Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking: