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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

June 01, 2011



The ups and downs of alcohol stats

A million is a big number. Unless, perhaps, youíre a banker, when itís loose change. When itís booze stats, though, itís bound to excite the imagination of the mainstream media, and NHS figures released last week showing that alcohol-related hospital admissions are up 12% to top the million a year mark inevitably hit the headlines.

There were other, less sexy, stats included, such as an increase in awareness of recommended drinking limits and a fall in the number of people classified as dependant on alcohol. The latter clears up a little disagreement I had with Alcohol Concern last year.

But what about that million? Shocking eh? Well, perhaps not quite as shocking as the media made out. The website Straight Statistics was quick to note a few problems.

Most curious is the way the million figure is reached. Itís not done by doctors and nurses, nor even receptionists, counting the drunks that reel in. Itís done by adding up fractions, estimates of what proportion of a particular complaint are alcohol-related. You donít have to have had a drink at all to contribute to the million.

That has various implications, which I leave to Straight Statistics to explain while I turn to another set of alcohol-related statistics released last week. Has anyone produced any statistics for numbers of alcohol-related statistics? I bet theyíre going through the roof.

Anyway, this lot came from the Office for National Statistics and looked at how deaths from alcohol-related diseases are distributed across different occupations.

Taking quite a narrow definition of an alcohol-related disease, which is helpful in itself, the report shows that men in jobs classified as Ďroutineí run 3.5 times greater risk of dying an alcohol-related death than men in managerial or professional positions. For women the gap is even greater Ė 5.7 times.

This is despite the fact that people in more routine, manual occupations drink less than those higher up the social scale, and it confirms repeated research into the impact of different levels of deprivation on alcohol-related death and disease.

The ONS stats drill deeper, however, and also suggest that the worse job youíve got, the quicker alcohol kills you. The Daily Telegraph amusingly turned this around into a warning to its many older, affluent, readers to watch what they drink.

Itís noticeable, though, that those worried about the demon drink are increasingly turning their attention away from rampaging youth towards the mature problem drinker.

Also last week, Alcohol Concern Cymru produced a brief report called Hidden Harm? about alcohol and older people in Wales.

Ignoring unhelpful sensational soundbites like Ďsilent epidemicí there is a valid point being made here. The disproportionate attention paid to binge-drinking youth has distracted us from the plight of the old. The report notes that retirement, bereavement, health problems and increasing social isolation can all cause people to turn to drink in a bad way.

And you could include pub closures, the smoking ban and the rising price of a pint in that, as they have reduced the opportunities for them to relieve the loneliness at the local and driven the drinking indoors.

As Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander argues, the growing problem of addiction, be it to alcohol or illicit drugs, is compensation for the dislocation brought about by the modern world.

Whether alcohol-related admissions have passed a million or not, whatever the correct statistics might be, thatís the predicament we should be addressing.

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