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        The politics of drinking

March 7, 2013



Having your pint and drinking it too? The ‘problem’ of falling alcohol consumption

Another decline in UK alcohol consumption gives the public health lobby a bit a of a problem. Or it ought to.

Numbers crunched by the British Beer & Pub Association  from HMRC tax returns suggest a drop of 3.3% in 2012, the sixth negative figure in eight years.

Per capita consumption, at 7.99 litres, is the lowest it’s been since 1998 and 16% down from a modern peak in 2004, the year before implementation of the 2003 Licensing Act and so-called 24-hour drinking. Not that anyone’s claiming that has anything to do with it. It’s just a nice coincidence.

But imagine if minimum unit pricing had been introduced in that year. The decline would be trumpeted as proof that it works, a triumph of social engineering that has begun to change our drinking culture.

Now, assuming that what we’re seeing is one of those long-term dips in consumption history tells us happens, nudged along by recession and less tangible cultural shifts, it’s going to be hard to tell whether minimum pricing works or not.

Worse for advocates of the measure, it’s entirely possible that alcohol consumption will start to edge up again. Would that be because the minimum price isn’t set high enough? Or might minimum pricing work in some devious way to make people drink more?

Responses to the BBPA figures on Twitter from two academic supporters of MUP were revealing.

“Depends on who is included in the phrase per capita,” tweeted John Foster, an alcohol researcher at the University of Greenwich. “There are many people usually 40-50 caning it.”

“Today's reported fall in alcohol consumption not the same as under a minimum price,” said John Holmes, one of the authors of the Sheffield University study that underpins much of the case for MUP. “In different drinkers so different impact on harm.”

What Holmes is getting at is the idea that minimum pricing will have a disproportionate impact on certain groups, typically identified as heavier drinkers and young people.  He’s guessing the BBPA decline is not caused by these people cutting down, and he might be right be right about the heavy drinkers – although evidence would suggest the young are, indeed, driving the fall.

Anyway, what’s interesting is that Holmes and Foster rightly feel the urge to break down per capita aggregate figures into more meaningful groups in order to understand where the actual problems lie.

But they have to recognise that this is a break from public health orthodoxy which decrees that total consumption determines total harm across a population (the BBPA is, in part, trying to demonstrate the weakness of this link) and which, in turn, favours alcohol policies that seek to reduce total consumption, and not target specific groups.

Indeed, minimum unit pricing, as James Morris has pointed out is itself designed to cut consumption across the whole population. Of course, heavier drinkers might well drive any such reduction simply because they drink more, but the benefits, as public health advocates see it, will come through an overall lower consumption.

As well as being a hard concept to grasp, it doesn’t play well politically, so Holmes and others have finessed MUP into what sounds like a targeted policy. People can accept that heavy drinkers ought to cut down. But I can’t see how something can be both a whole population policy and a targeted policy. You can’t have your pint and drink it too.

Rest assured, though, that what the public health lobby really wants is for us all to stop drinking. They have helpfully made this explicit in Health First, the Stirling University Acohol Health Alliance-sponsored strategy document that came out earlier this month.

“We need to imagine a society where low or no alcohol consumption is the norm,” it says (page 6). There is an air of old temperance about this. Note that these people consider “no alcohol consumption” to be a possible, let alone a desirable, goal.

Well, I’ve tried imagining their society and I don’t like it.

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