Really, the Burton Mail should be ashamed of itself. This is the local newspaper in what is, historically, at least, the beer capital of Britain, Burton upon Trent, still the home to two major brewing companies, Coors and Marstons, and it’s running factoid alcohol scare stories designed to pander to the latest moral panic, that we’re all going to hell in a booze-powered handcart.
“Hospital alcohol incidents soar” is the headline in the Burton Mail this week, and the intro declares: “Alcohol-related admissions at Burton’s Queen’s Hospital have rocketed by 808 per cent over the last five years, the Mail can reveal.”
Now, ignoring for a moment the distorting effect of giving us percentages, not actual numbers, we have an important lesson here: if some fact seems, on the face of it, unlikely, that’s probably because we’re not being given the whole picture. Hospital admissions put down to drink rising nine times in just five years? That scarcely seems credible.
Well, the Burton Mail insists that “shocking figures released under the Freedom of Information Act” show that from 2006 to 2007, only 12 alcohol related admissions were made to the local hospital, but in 2007-08 “this figure astonishingly had almost tripled by 167 per cent” (um – 167 per cent is not “almost tripled”, chaps, it’s one fifth less than tripled: don’t mix percentages and multipliers, it makes you look stupid) to 32 admissions, and the numbers have risen steadily even year since: 42 alcohol-related admissions in 2008-9, 97 in 2009-10 and 109 in the 12 months to the end of March 2011, “representing an eightfold increase from 2006”.
Actually, that’s a ninefold increase (confusion between percentages, as in par one, and multipliers again) but let’s move on. Now, 109 “alcohol-related hospital admissions” a year represents barely two a week, and Burton has an adult population of something on the order of 48,000, of whom, probably (if they’re like the rest of the UK) 80 per cent or so drink at least once a week, so every week more than 19,000 people in Burton have a drink and don’t end up in hospital afterwards for every one who does. And we’re not given a definition of what an “alcohol-related hospital admission” actually is: could be liver disease, could be that you slipped and fell after a couple of pints and ended up in A&E.
Still, we’re left with the fact that alcohol-related hospital admissions do seem to have leapt in Burton after 2007. The null hypothesis adopted by the local Conservative MP for Burton, Andrew Griffiths – who happens to be both the current chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Beer and the secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Misuse of Drugs and Alcohol, and who thus ought to know better – is that this is a “staggering revelation” that shows “not only the extent of binge drinking, but the related costs to both the NHS and policing.” Really, Andrew? Two people a week recorded as “alcohol-related hospital admissions” tells us what, exactly, about the extent of binge drinking, in Burton or Britain? And what ARE the costs of two people a week going to hospital? And where are the police mentioned?
Griffiths told the Burton Mail: “This is clear evidence that proves we need to do more to tackle binge-drinking and to improve the attitude of supermarkets that continue to sell booze at loss leaders in order to drive their profits. It speaks volumes of how much we need to support our community pubs where drinking can be monitored in a controlled environment — rather than people pre-loading at home on cheap alcohol and then going out.”
But the facts as given by the Burton Mail tell us nothing about binge drinking, because we have no details at all on what those hospital admissions are down to except that they are “alcohol related” – and, eg, alcohol-induced liver disease is not caused by “binge drinking”, it’s caused by serious alcohol abuse over a long period of time.
Second, the story tells us nothing at all about “pre-loading”, where the people recorded as “alcohol-related hospital admissions” were getting their alcohol from, or any other fact that might contribute meaningfully to the debate about supermarkets and their alcohol pricing policies. Let’s support pubs as places where “drinking can be monitored in a controlled environment”, absolutely: but for all we know from the story in the Burton Mail, every one of those 109 “alcohol-related hospital admissions” could have been doing nothing more than supping Joules in the Coopers’ Tavern before they ended up in the Queen’s Hospital. (Actually, I’d be very confident not a single one was doing any such thing: the Coopers’ is a superb pub.)
So is there anything to disprove the hypothesis that this leap in admissions from 2007 is down to a surge in binge drinking? Why, what’s this, down in
paragraph 19 paragraph 13 of the Burton Mail story – a statement from Eddie Oforka, consultant in emergency medicine at Queen’s Hospital in Burton:
“The increase identified in the figures may not necessarily reflect a rise in incidence of alcohol-related problems and is more likely to be due to a better system of identifying and caring for patients with alcohol-related illness following the appointment of the Alcohol Liaison Worker in 2007.
“It was in recognition of the benefits of early intervention that the post was set up at the Trust in connection with Burton Addiction Centre. These identified patients do not necessarily increase the pressure on A&E and once they are identified, they get better care which usually stops them from becoming recurring attendances.”
So – someone is appointed in 2007 to Queen’s Hospital in Burton whose job it is to identify people with alcohol-related illnesses, and straight away the number of “alcohol-related hospital admissions” at Queen’s shows a sharp rise, and continues to rise in subsequent years. There’s your credible explanation: a “rise” that is probably entirely, or at worst almost entirely, a statistical artefact caused by a wider definition, on the prompting of the hospital’s new alcohol liaison worker, of what an “alcohol-related hospital admission” actually is.
I am sure Sarah Dean, the Burton Addiction Centre alcohol liaison worker at Queen’s Hospital, is doing an excellent job at identifying those whose over-consumption of alcohol puts them at risk, and guiding those people towards the help they require. Society needs people like her. But her work shouldn’t be used by journalists looking for some cheap scaremongering by presenting the successes of social workers in identifying those with alcohol problems as any sort of binge-drinking boom. Even if the journalist does eventually give us, right at the end, the facts that destroy the story.