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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

21 November,  2011



Drinking stories: how BUPA spun a tale of boozed-up Britain

As you must by now have realised, journalists don’t have time* to read original reports. Sometimes we struggle to get to the bottom of the press release. This makes us easy prey for PR spin merchants – particularly when it comes to that ever-sexy topic, drink.

Last week we had an extreme example of what can happen, the Daily Mail, of course, leading the charge.

Booze Britain: One in 10 admit they can't go a day without a drink’ screamed its headline. ‘1 in 10 Brits can't go a day without alcohol’ echoed the Daily Mirror.

The compulsive aspect of this, the idea that a large section of the population is out of control, is entirely speculative. I have a pint or two of nice beer pretty nearly every day not because I lack the will to resist the temptations of demon drink but because I like it. I’m making a positive, conscious decision to enhance my lifestyle.

More interesting, though, is where this story came from. Mark Baird, who enjoys the luxury of being able to do this sort of thing because he’s paid to by Diageo, read the original report, BUPA Health Pulse 2011. He could find no mention of alcohol.

Nobody’s going to take any notice of Baird, of course, since he’s drinks industry. But he’s right. Although there is a brief reference in the report to parents setting a bad example by drinking in front of the kids, there’s nothing at all about the daily drinking habits of the British.

There is a mention, though, in the accompanying press release, which contains lots of stuff presumably deemed not important enough to be included in the report itself.

Obviously, BUPA has to highlight what it thinks are the main issues for each country. And for Britain it’s… no, not drinking but a health crisis among the middle-aged. The statistics on drinking can be found not in the body of the press release at all, but in the very last footnote. And, though not contradictory, they are different to the statistics quoted in the media.

What’s going on? A clue lies in the dates at the top of the press release - September 5, more than two months before it hit the ‘news’. I vaguely remember reports about the middle-aged health crisis, but the headlines probably weren’t big enough for BUPA bosses who’ve got to justify the cost of all that research.

So what I’m guessing happened is that the PR department was called in and told to have another go. They dug out some extra drinking stats and started spinning.

Why didn’t they do that in the first place? Perhaps because the story is quite weak. It rests on comparing British drinking habits with the rest of the world – which in the BUPA survey means 11 other countries. Including Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is illegal. None of the heaviest drinking nations, in eastern Europe mostly, are included. The press release footnote makes unfavourable comparison with India. India! Contrary to what you might imagine while you’re quaffing the Cobra and Kingfisher in your local curry house, drinking is not a significant component of life for the vast majority of India’s 1.2 billion citizens. It’s surely not a valid comparison.

But BUPA reckons it is. In the release’s other refererence to alcohol, under the recommendations, it says Britons should “challenge their social norms”.

“People's social lives often revolve around the local pub. We have room to be more inventive with what we do socially, and come up with healthier alternatives.”

So while publicans are struggling to attract custom, and even medical temperance admits pubs are relatively healthy places to drink, BUPA says we ought to keep out of those unsalubrious dens of vice.

If it thinks keeping people out of the pub is a health priority, I’m glad nobody’s read its stupid report.

Although, having glanced through it, it’s quite an interesting – in a bad way – expression of neoliberal ideology from a private health company, and it does have an indirect impact on alcohol policy. So I might come back to it. If I’ve time.


*A problem greatly exacerbated by job cuts.

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