“Over the last 60 years English drinking habits have been transformed. In 1947 the nation consumed approximately three and a half litres of pure alcohol per head; the current figure is nine and a half litres.”
The Parliamentary Health Select Committee Report on Alcohol
Why choose 1947? Oh, that’s why!
The Select Committee acknowledges that “The history of the consumption of alcohol over the last 500 years has been one of fluctuations, of peaks and troughs.”
So why choose 1947 as your point of comparison? Isn’t it odd to say “How have drinking patterns changed over the last 63 years?”
The reason for choosing this seemingly random date is that it represents a really low consumption point – any comparison is only going to look better if you deliberately choose the lowest point. By choosing 1947, the Committee is deliberately ‘spinning’ the figures – manipulating data to suit their case.
That in itself is statistically weaselly, but would be just about valid were it not for one key fact: alcohol consumption in the late 1940s was atypical of British drinking patterns over time, thanks to extraordinary and never repeated factors, and therefore does not represent a valid point of comparison.
In World War Two:
- Thanks to material shortages, the average strength of beer decreased markedly. Even though people were drinking more beer, they were consuming less alcohol through beer.
- Spirits consumption virtually disappeared because (a) there were acute grain shortages. Production of Britain’s indigenous spirit – whisky – collapsed, and any existing volume was exported for valuable income; and (b) imports of spirits virtually ceased thanks to dangers to shipping – essentials had to be prioritized.
- Many pubs were bombed out
The post-war years (including 1947) were even leaner than the war, as a broke country started to rebuild itself. It took years before the British economy got back to normal. When it did, alcohol consumption began to rise again.
1947 is therefore a ridiculous point with which to make comparison.
Changing British Drinking Patterns: The Truth
Alcohol consumption rose through the second half of the twentieth century because society became more prosperous, people had more income, and the economic foundation of Britain changed from being a manufacturing economy to a leisure/service economy.
Nevertheless, if we were to choose 1870, or 1900, or 1914 as our year of comparison, the story would be one of declining consumption. Too far in the past to be relevant? OK, how about 2004? Not long enough? OK, how about 2000?
Over the last ten years, alcohol consumption has declined. It rose between 2000 and 2004, but has since declined – per capita alcohol consumption in the UK in 2009 was the same as it was in 1999, and 0.9% lower than in 2000.
In other words – over a statistically relevant time scale, UK alcohol consumption is NOT increasing.
The Select Committee Report is forced to acknowledge this inconvenient truth. Deep in the text, it admits that “since 2004 when consumption peaked, there has been a slight decrease in alcohol consumption in terms of litres of pure alcohol,” but says it is “unclear” whether this is just “a blip”.
But by the time they get to their conclusions and Executive Summary, this inconvenient ‘blip’ has been forgotten. There is no mention of a recent fall in consumption, only that “the rising levels of alcohol consumption and their consequences have been an increasing source of concern in recent years”.
The Select Committee also argues that the decline is not a “clear and consistent pattern of falling consumption since 2003”. But look at this chart:
I guess their point is that the increase in 2007 means the decline is not ‘consistent’. But any statistician or data analyst I’ve ever met (and I’ve met more than I would have liked) would say that this graph represents a very 'clear' downward trend.
At the very least then, the Select Committee is being wilfully misleading about one of the central tenets of its report.
Finally – a note about international comparisons
The Committee reports that the UK has “One of highest consumption rates in Europe”.
The truth is we’re actually 9th – behind Luxembourg, Ireland, Hungary, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Germany and Spain.
At the time of writing, Fulham are 9th in the Premier League. Would even Fulham fans attempt to argue that their team is ‘one of the highest’ in the Premiership?
 The only time in the twentieth century when alcohol consumption was lower was the final years of the First World War – probably too tenuous a date even for the Committee.