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        The politics of drinking

November 20, 2012



Alcohol Concern’s hangover stats give me a headache

It’s Alcohol Awareness Week and Alcohol Concern, studiously “not being killjoys”, has chosen to mark it by calling on people to pledge to give up drinking for the whole of January. Oh, and get sponsored for it and send the money to Alcohol Concern. It’s gone to the trouble of creating a whole website for the campaign.

There’s nothing new about a dry January. Lots of people do it to detox and save cash after the festive excesses. Personally I can’t think of a worse time to stop going to the pub, and some doctors have declared it a pointless gesture from a health point of view. But I was startled by some of the statistics in the press release that announced the initiative so, killjoy that I am, I thought I’d check them. And it’s given me a headache.

“More than four and a half million working days in the UK could be lost to hangovers this January… It's estimated that around 200,000 thousand (sic) people go to work with a hangover every day costing the economy around £6.4 billion each year.”

Which is coming up for a third of the £21 billion alcohol is supposed to cost the economy in total*. Blimey.

This figure comes from the Labour government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy of 2004. Remember that? I’m coming over all nostalgic.

Anyway, leaving aside the fact this was put together as alcohol consumption was peaking, the numbers quoted by Alcohol Concern do not relate to hangovers alone.

According to the AHRS (page 17): “We calculate the overall cost of productivity lost as a result of alcohol misuse to be £6.4bn per annum – up to 17m working days are lost each year through alcohol-related absence.”

It refers us to the previous year’s Interim Analytical Report, which tells us that the £6.4 billion is made up of three components: increased sickness, inability to work through unemployment and early retirement (which you can’t count towards the social cost, but never mind), and premature death.

Now, I’ve had some pretty bad hangovers but none of them have quite killed me nor forced me into early retirement, though I have been tempted on occasion.

Which leaves us with sickness. And even then sickness must include things like alcoholic liver disease. What does that make the cost of hangovers? I have no idea but I’m guessing it’s closer to £6.40 than £6.4 billion.

You’ll also note that the 17 working million days a year the AHRS estimates are lost does not equate to 4.5 million days in January. Even if January were a typical month it would only be 1.4 million days.

The 4.5 million seems to come from Alcohol Concern’s other source, a 2006 survey by Prudential Insurance which, through YouGov, interviewed 1,134 employees, 17% of whom said they went into work with a hangover at least once a month.

By the Pru’s convoluted mathematics that comes out as 200,000 people a day. Multiply that by the number of working days in January 2013 and it comes to 4.4 million. Add in the bank holiday (two if you’re Scottish) and it’s “more than four and a half million”. But even then, these are days on which people specifically say they’ve gone into work. They’re not lost, even if they might be a bit hazy.

And Alcohol Concern can’t have missed the 17m annual figure. It’s only separated by a few words and a dash from the £4.6bn. Perhaps it thought a survey among 1,000-odd people is more reliable than an official government statistic. Or perhaps it just picked the biggest number it could find.

*Another dubious statistic

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