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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

If the numbers don't fit, make them up - sorry, who is being irresponsible here?

So it's National Alcohol Hysteria Week - sorry, Alcohol Awareness Week, and the papers are treating us to the usual parade of stories demonising drink and drinkers (accompanied, natch, by images of people drinking beer, especially cask ale).

It's been a while since I've written about the information being released by anti-alcohol groups and swallowed without question by newspapers who simply don't have the budgets or staff to do proper investigative journalism any more.

But I couldn't let this one go after it was brought to my attention.

If I were going to be very naive, I'd say that Alcohol Awareness Week would be the perfect occasion to draw attention to the fact that, while there is still undoubtedly a problem with alcohol abuse in the UK (there always will be, so long as it is on sale, and if it were not on sale that problem would manifest itself elsewhere, in more dangerous substances) the scale of that problem is abating - at a dramatic rate.

This is great news for the country as a whole. It's great news for health professionals and the burden on the NHS, and it's great news for groups who are potentially at risk, such as young people who may drink more than they want to thanks to peer pressure.

But it's bad news for groups like Alcohol Concern, because it undermines their case for even greater restrictions on the sale and availability of alcohol, particularly their poorly thought-out and badly substantiated argument for a 50p per unit minimum price.  That's why they have now begun to ignore the statistical data gathered by the government and the NHS, and create their own.

They do this, and they dare, they have the gall, to say that it is the alcohol industry that is behaving irresponsibly.

All sides in any debate use spin. Everyone takes stats and puts the best interpretation on them to help make the case you want to make.  But to take the moral high ground and then simply IGNORE the official figures is quite simply immoral and irresponsible behaviour.

With binge drinking plummeting among among adults, neo-prohibitionists initially focused on drinking among the over 65s. But being unable to find any stats whatsoever to support their argument, they're now attempting to hit the nation in the heart - by making us worry about children and young adults.

Today's headlines are all about children as young as 13 getting drunk, and how it's cheaper to get drunk than it is to go to the cinema.

Well, where do we start?

Let's start with the fact - that's FACT, Alcohol Concern - that ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION AMONG UNDER-AGE DRINKERS HAS HALVED IN THE LAST DECADE.

In 2001, a survey with far greater sample size, reliability and impartiality than Alcohol Concern's own research suggested that 26% of children under the age of 18 had had a drink the week before the interview. By 2010 that number had fallen to 13%.

HALVED.

As this does not suit Alcohol Concern's argument, instead they looked at ESPAD – the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which surveys behaviour among 15-16 year-olds.

Obviously, anyone who has the slightest interest in truthful and honest reporting would make sure they were using the very latest numbers available. Alcohol Concern chose not to - they chose a five year old, out of date survey, instead of using the 2011 ESPAD survey which they knew to be widely available.

Why would they do that?  Why would they knowingly, deliberately use out-of-date, inaccurate figures?  Oh, here's why:

Percentage who are drunk at least once a month:
1999 - 49
2007 - 32
2011 - 26

Percentage drunk at least three times a month:
1999 - 24
2007 - 10
2011 - 8

Percentage drunk at least ten times in the last year
1999 - 28
2007 - 13
2011 - 7

Percentage drunk at least twenty times in their life time
1999 - 29
2007 - 13
2011 - 8

These figures show, across the board, a sharp decline in drunkenness among 15-16 year old students - even if you use the out-of-date figures.

Which is why Alcohol Concern decided to supplement this research with some of their very own.  

Now, market research used to take up a big part of my day job.  There are some basic principles for how you use it accurately.  

Firstly, if you want to produce a meaningful, nationally representative sample, you have to do research in different parts of the country - habits in London are different from those in Scotland, Wales or Manchester, for example.

So can you guess what Alcohol Concern did?

They went to Newcastle - which, as Alcohol Concern knows, has the worst reputation in the country for under-age drinking in the UK.  And they presented their findings from Newcastle as if they were an honest representation of the UK as a whole, when they know they are not.

Secondly, with research, you have to use the right techniques for the job. There are two different kinds of research: qualitative and quantitative.  With qual, you dig deep into people's habits and motivations, but you can't use any statistics from it because you're only talking to a small group of people - there simply aren't the numbers to make it reliable. For that, you use quant - talking to large numbers of people in a way that doesn't allow you to dig into detail, but gives you a statistically significant number.  Best practice is that you use one to help the other - developing hunches in qual and validating them in quant, or spotting trends in quant and exploring what's behind them in qual.

So again, can you guess what Alcohol Concern did?

They did a couple of qual groups that totalled nineteen - NINETEEN - teenagers, and presented their findings as if they were statistically valid.  

They weren't even valid for Newcastle, let alone the rest of the country.

If I had done something like this in advertising I would have been fired, and rightly so.  If it were not cynically designed to be deliberately misleading, it would be breathtakingly incompetent.

There's more that is wrong with this so-called research. It's little better than a pack of lies.  It does, off-hand, admit that there has been a 'slight' fall in overall alcohol consumption. 20% down in nine years? A fifth of the volume of booze drunk in this country on a yearly basis has disappeared in less than a decade and you call that 'slight?!'


As the true story continues to improve, Alcohol Concern is getting increasingly desperate in its attempts to convince us of the existence of an entirely fictitious moral panic.

Shame on them.

16 comments:

brewyourownbeer said...

Given that most underage drinking happens in parks/bus stops/under bridges*, (like when I was wee), it's amazing to see that youths can get access to cask ale, in such good condition and in branded glasses as was shown in the picture. Amazing.

*I have no facts to support this.

Anonymous said...

Mostly agree but wouldn't minimum price per unit only affect supermarkets knocking out cheap shit? It might help get people back into pubs where drinking is supervised and would not affect their or specialist bottle shop prices.

Brother Logic said...

Those percentages you've listed don't make sense - should they not total 100? Where ave all the numbers gone to?

Brother Logic said...

Why don't those percentages add up to 100?

Unknown said...

brother logic, you may want to consider that not *all* under-agers will be drunk.........

phil said...

Why should they add up to 100?

Pete Brown said...

Brother, they're different questions on different surveys - respondents could answer yes or no to each one.

Nick Boley said...

Being a father of two boys (20 and 17) and stepfather to twin girls (17) I know that some young people drink, and sometimes too much. My three 17-year olds rarely drink - they don't particularly like it. My older son reckons 3 drinks is a lot - he usually drinks cask ale or cocktails(!) Many of his university friends drink less than that.
Compare that with my student days - Friday nights often meant 10 or 11 pints (cask ale mostly) and a normal evening out could be 6 or 7! But we grew out of it and came to no harm and now drink more moderately and enjoy what we drink, rather than swill it down for the effects. Being drunk is a horrible feeling, but it is a side-effect of enjoying a tasty beer or three occasionally.

J Mark Dodds said...

Solid Great Stuff Pete.

Cooking Lager said...

Whilst I agree I think some explanation for the shoddy research can be found in the funding of the organisation.

As a "fake" charity reliant on government funding they lost must of it last year.

http://www.cpltraining.co.uk/blog/post/ALCOHOL-CONCERN-LOSES-GOVERNMENT-FUNDING.aspx

Now you can say that is part and parcel of austerity Britain and cuts or a swipe from a right wing party that gets donations from big alcohol or even a party that does not agree ideologically with government sponsored social engineering.

Either way they are now poorly resourced but stumbling on. This makes much of the research they do, on the cheap.

I'm not excusing them, just offering a reason why Alcohol Concern are getting sloppy.

Reuben Gray said...

I'm just flabbergasted at the blatant lies these people have come up with. Sometimes i think free speech is overrated. Sometimes.....

Fishter said...

Their new campaign for after Christmas: Dry January.
Your mission: to avoid that cheeky after work pint, that glass of wine on the sofa, or that big boozy night out, for the whole month.

Make a real difference to the lives of those harmed through alcohol misuse and get sponsored by family and friends to sponsor you and raise money for Alcohol Concern.


Just in case you missed it:
get sponsored ... and raise money for Alcohol Concern.

They can f*** right off. I'm thinking of having a sponsored booze up and sending the money to people who need it; hard working publicans and brewers.

woodmans said...

Spot on Pete! This is typical of organisations that shall we say are of a puritanical nature - I´ve seen the same sort of bull from ASH, and particularly from American anti tobacco groups. You might not like smoking, but it´s subject to exactly the same twaddle....do these people think we´re all idiots??
even the bbc were pumping out crap about liver disease doubling in a decade...I think if you check the figures in relation to population growth, it´s fallen!!
see
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20410378?

hat4uk said...

Nice to see a retired plannista using bollocks deconstruction. I came at it from a different angle, viz - zero correlation at all between price & consumption cuts, & as usual they had to choose Uzbekhistan or some other f**king place to make the comparison.
As a 64+ BTW, lack of data doesn't mean we AREN'T all pissed.
Take care
The Slog

John Ellis said...

Great work Pete! I hope you have forwarded this to the Government's Official Statistical Body (name escapes me!) for "rigorous analysis" before Ministers swallow the Health Fascists arguments.

John Ellis
Crown Inn, Oakengates &
Elephant & Castle, Dawley

John Ellis said...

Great work Pete! I hope you have forwarded this to the Government's Official Statistical Body (name escapes me!) for "rigorous analysis" before Ministers swallow the Health Fascists arguments.

John Ellis
Crown Inn, Oakengates &
Elephant & Castle, Dawley