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Friday, 8 January 2010

The Health Select Committee Report on Alcohol

I know I go on quite a bit about the politics of drinking. Here's a very good illustration of why I do.

The Parliamentary Health Select Committee today issued its report on the 'shocking' levels of binge drinking in the UK, soaring hospital admissions and death rates attributable to alcohol, cost of drinking to the UK, and so on.

As usual with reports like this, the findings of the committee have been reported across the media as fact. Any dissenting voice is confined to a comment near the bottom of the piece from an alcohol industry spokesperson.

The report recommends, among other things, the following measures:

Pricing and taxation

  • Introduce minimum pricing
  • Increase in spirits duty
  • Increase “industrial white cider duty”
  • Duty increases should predominantly be on stronger drinks


  • Statutory regulation of advertising from outside of alcohol and advertising industry
  • No billboards within 100 metres of schools
  • 9 o' clock watershed for TV advertising
  • Cinema advertising only for films with an 18 certificate
  • If over 10% of audience/readership is under 18 then medium should not be used to advertise
  • Alcohol advertising banned on social networking sites


  • Impose mandatory code urgently (which bans cut price drinks promotions, demands CCTV in pubs, and more)
  • Police to enforce ‘serving to drunks’ legislation
  • Government should assess why pubs associated with heavy drinking do not have their licences revoked
  • Government should give more powers to local authorities to allow them to restrict and revoke licences
  • Copy the restrictions on promotions in the off-trade introduced in Scotland, such as limited areas for alcohol consumption


  • Mandatory labelling scheme on all drinks packaging
  • Improve alcohol treatment services
Now there are some sensible measures in there - I for one have no problem with steep increases in duty on tramp juice and a fairer allocation of duty on spirits relative to beer. And I'm still undecided on minimum pricing - I disagree with the level being recommended but can see some arguments for it as well as against it. But there are some deeply worrying recommendations too, and it's the sheer volume of recommendations that's really scary.

But why should we care?

Well, because Liam Donaldson told the committee (with his usual utter disregard of any factual substantiation whatsoever) that there are "no safe limits of drinking," and that "alcohol is virtually akin to smoking as one of the biggest public health issues we have to face in this country."

Bollocks of course. But officially published, sanctioned, and undisputed bollocks.

And that comparison with smoking is quite deliberate. Not all the measures listed above will come to pass, but arguably the most important line in the report is this one:

"Education, information campaigns and labelling will not directly change behaviour, but they can change attitudes and make more potent policies more acceptable."

Smoking hasn't been banned form British society. But consistent campaigning against smoking eventually changed social attitudes towards it. The smoking ban came in because the majority of people were in favour of it. Nobody but the ad industry minded when advertising and sponsorship were banned. Making smoking socially unacceptable was far more effective than trying to ban it outright. The anti-drink lobby have learned from this, and this report is a naked attempt to make drinking socially unacceptable.

But drinking is NOT the same as smoking. The BMA itself acknowledges the beneficial effects of moderate drinking. Nevertheless, this report seeks to persuade people to treat it the same way, and is meeting with little resistance.

I've spent most of the last day immersed in the report, following the links to its sources, trying to work out what they're really saying, drawing graphs so data is more easily understandable.

And I've found that the report is highly selective in the data it uses, misrepresents what other data is saying, and in many places contains blatant untruths. It needs to be challenged.

I've got kind of obsessed with doing so, and I've got lots of charts, quotes etc which do not seek to manipulate or twist the data, like the anti-alcohol lobby unfailingly does, but just present the raw numbers - collated by independent and reliable government sources and even the NHS itself - which prove that many of the report's conclusions are deeply - I'd argue even wilfully - flawed.

Over the next few days, I'll be putting up several posts which debunk each of the following, oft-repeated myths:

  • “Alcohol consumption in the UK is increasing”
  • “Binge drinking is increasing”
  • “Alcohol is becoming more affordable”
  • “Binge drinking has been made much worse by the introduction of 24 hour licensing”
  • “Alcohol related hospital admission are soaring”
  • “Alcohol advertising and promotion must be tightly regulated, primarily because it is encouraging children to drink more alcohol.”
  • “Alcohol abuse costs the country £55bn a year”

Sorry to go on. But please stay tuned. And if you ever hear someone spouting any of the above bollocks, please rip off the charts and use them to argue back.


Anonymous said...

Like you, I agree that most of these proposals will have no effect other than wasting taxpayers money implementing them.

I did not start drinking beer because I saw ads. I started because people around me were doing so, and I thought I'd better find out what I'd been missing (also because it was illegal).

The sleeping scooper

Problem drinkers (ie those who create mayhem in town centres late at night) are not real ale drinkers. Indeed, I have worked for three years in a well-known and well-respected real ale pub in London (The Wenlock Arms) and have never had to chuck anyone out. Nearest I got was asking some lager-drinking Welsh rugby fans to quieten down a bit. They chose to leave instead.

So, yes, abuse of alcohol is to be discouraged - sensible drinking should be encouraged.

Maybe the government should in future commission research from people who actually drink, rather than those who assume, through ignorance, that all alcohol is bad.

Cheers, must go to bar for another pint!

Curmudgeon said...

You are quite right that it is not so much individual measures we have to fear but the general process of the "denormalisation" of alcoholic drinks. This has already gone some way - as an example, you see far less light social drinking at work-related events than you did 20 or 30 years ago.

Taxing white cider more heavily may seem tempting, but it is very hard in legislative terms to distinguish it from craft ciders of similar strength.

BLTP said...

Not sure it's that hard to tax white cider brands. all you need to do is send the tax man down to south end of Deptford high st (171,53 bus or DLR) and see what brands the lads sat next to anchor are drinking at 9 am on the morning!
Good work on this Pete

Wellescent Health Blog said...

While there are some benefits to some of the proposed changes with respect to not advertising to children because of their tendency to make uninformed decisions, it is completely one sided and inaccurate to state that there is no safe levels of alcohol. When an attempt to make a point is so extreme in nature, it indicates clearly that those making it have ideological views that they wish to promote rather than simply serving the public interests.

Eddie86 said...

Firstly, thank you Pete, for working through the original data and working all this out.

Secondly, what I'd like to know, is what can we do about this? When the spinners come out with blatant lies, how can we retaliate?

The trade has no voice. So many groups trying to get a soundbite out, no media outlet or government would have a clue who to listen too! The BII? The IPC? BBPA? the list goes on and on. It's like Obama said recently regarding the Christmas Day Bomber, all the different agencies had the relevant information, but didn't work together.

Unless we, as in the trade, can find a way of communicating clearly, perhaps aided by 'consumer groups', this report will only be the start of it.

Tandleman said...

There was a good piece on Radio 4 yesterday at about 13.30 debunking the claims that the cost of treating alcohol related hospital admissions had doubled. It has in fact barely changed allowing for NHS inflation.

Ron Pattinson said...

Doctors didn't used to be so against alcohol advertising:

Woolpack Dave said...

I look forward to your further posts on the subject. You do not need to apologize for going on about this one.

Perhaps you should stand for parliament. You might loose your deposit, but it'd be a good publicity stunt.

Tandleman said...

We could chip in for Pet's deposit Dave. You could use your Brew Dog profits1 (-;

Professor Poontang said...

And where are CAMRA in all of this ?

They are the most well-known drinking organisation in the country yet apart from the usual PR guff they put out every year around GBBF time are virtually never heard.

Curmudgeon said...

CAMRA are currently soliciting for donations to fight the OFT ruling on the beer tie. Talk of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic!

They really are showing a pathetic head-in-the-sand attitude towards the anti-drink lobby (and I speak as a life member of the organisation).

DJ said...

It does seem that Pete is a lone voice against b.s. being spouted at the moment from the neo-prohibitionists. CAMRA are the body that we would look to speak up for us but this doesn't seem to be on their agenda. We really need a lobbyist group set up that speaks with a greater voice and deal with the wider issues facing the beer industry. Are you interested Pete?

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