How to stop the neo-prohibitionists from winning

[image image_id=”2342″] I mentioned the article on Velvet Glove, Iron Fist about the real history of binge-drinking in a tweet earlier. It is well worth reading, lots of interesting data there, and good criticism of the BBC News website’s latest bit of anti-drink propaganda. It makes the point very clearly that the moral panic over binge drinking is driven by pressure groups with the assistance of the press who are only too willing to uncritically report scare stories. There is some clear data in the article which shows the massive increase in the frequency of using the term ‘binge-drinking’ in the press has driven an increase in the use of the term by politicians. This has resulted in them being convinced we have a major binge-drinking problem and that ‘something must be done’.

There are three different terms being bandied about which refer to problem drinking, each with questionable definitions, and all using the same flawed interpretation of source data.

“More than 10 million ‘drinking at

hazardous levels’

” – Daily Telegraph

Apparently, a quarter of adults are hazardous drinkers. This alone makes it obvious that something is dodgy.

First, let’s see where the data comes from? It turns out that all data derives from the Office of National Statistics General Health Survey. This asks people how much they drank on the day in the last week they drank the most. This piece of information is then turned into weekly alcohol consumption, by multiplying the number of units by seven. This is a staggeringly duplicitous use of statistics.

If this laughably derived number is more than guideline maximum number of units a person should drink in a week (which we know are meaningless numbers just plucked from the air) then they are a hazardous drinker. Since the partner and I shared a bottle of light red wine today, we fall into this category.

Then there is ‘harmful drinking’. This is defined in the HSC report and by the BMA as “A pattern of drinking alcohol that causes harm to a person’s health or wellbeing. The harm may be physical, psychological or social.” They then go on to ignore the actual incidence of harm as being too difficult to know, and instead use the ONS GHS numbers as a proxy. They decide that anyone who consumes over 50 units a week regularly (35 for women) is a harmful drinker.

Given the absurd way the totals are calculated, this means that if my partner and I had decided to share a bottle of 8% German Riesling, in addition to the 12% red wine we had, we’d suddenly have turned into harmful drinkers, even if we had not had anything else to drink all week.

Replace 'drunkard' with 'binge-drinker' and this poster is instantly up-to-date Finally, there’s binge drinking. That is defined in the UK as having more than 8 units a day (6 for women) on at least one occasion in the last week. That’s a bottle of weak wine, or three pints of Stella. That meaning is quite different to what was considered binge-drinking 10-15 years ago.

Whenever reports appear in the media on how we are drinking ourselves to death, it is important for as many people as possible to challenge the dodgy figures being used by anti-drink campaigners in a blatant attempt to de-normalise alcohol. It is also an insult to anyone who has ever lived with someone with serious alcohol problems, or themselves drunk enough to give them health or social problems.

So, next time you read something alarmist, claiming that a quarter or third of people are misusing alcohol, don’t be shy to point out what the figures add up to in the context of real alcoholic drinks, not difficult-to-visualise units. Who knows, that may persuade at least some journalists to use their own judgment rather than recycling hysterical nonsense press releases.

  • David Strange

    The invalid interpretation of data and selective reporting of facts typify the neo-prohibitionists. This gets me vastly annoyed. I get even more vexed when such prejudiced, misleading information is regurgitated uncritically by the press. There seems to be a view that it is acceptable to do this as the neo-prohibitionists are honestly trying to save us from that evil monster alcohol which causes so much damage to all of our lives. This, of course, is absolute twaddle. These moral crusaders are simply trying to justify their existence by inflating the perception that there are very serious alcohol problems and, as we cannot be trusted to look after ourselves, only their pet ideas can save us. Certainly there are people with drinking problems, but to suggest that at least a quarter of of the population falls into this category is manifestly a pile of old drivel. Even the slowest journalist should realise this and then go on to analyse all of their statistics and conclusions in greater detail. Until journalists start doing this, and we should be prompting them to do so, we are in danger of biased opinions forming government policy and infringing on all our our liberty.

  • ed tully

    you seem to be under the charming delusion that journalists want to report the truth when in fact what they need to do is to create stories that sell newspapers.

  • David Strange

    It can also be news-worthy when organisations are found to be lying through their teeth. If you’ve seen the (pleasingly widely reported) story about the IPCC report that claimed as fact that the Himalayan glaciers would have entirely melted by 2035 or sooner (when this ‘fact’ was just plucked from the air by some Indian fellow and never peer reviewed or even published, read more here) you can see that such stories can make it into the press. I think a government select committee publishing duplicitous statistics and unfounded conclusions in an attempt to curtail our freedom is certainly worth reporting.