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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

March 22, 2012



Minimum pricing: how an alcohol policy is made

Next week the coalition government is set reveal its long-awaited alcohol strategy. It seems increasingly likely that Westminster will follow the Scottish Government’s and move to introduce minimum pricing. If it does, a group of academics in Sheffield University will take much of the credit – or blame, depending on your point of view.

Medical temperance, the ideological movement behind the health lobby, latched onto the idea of minimum unit pricing a few years ago. Leaving aside for a moment the claims that it will reduce alcohol harm, minimum pricing has served two political purposes.

First, as a rallying point from where the medical profession and others who want a more aggressive alcohol policy can consistently lobby government with a clearly-defined demand. And, second, as a means to split the ‘opposition’ – a drinks industry that is not only divided on the question of minimum pricing between on-trade and off-trade but also within the on-trade. A counter-lobby has, predictably, been difficult to mobilise.

It’s been a clever campaign – and it seems to have worked. But at every step it has relied upon the work carried out by the Interdisciplinary Alcohol Research Programme (IARP) at Sheffield, and principally the 2008 report commissioned by the Department of Health. (()) which is where all the rather large and precise estimates of the lives and money that would be saved by various minimum prices come from.

It’s a modelling study, and I have no reason to disbelieve the academics in the field who say it’s a robust one. But it’s still only a model, achieved by extrapolating from past experience of increases in the price of alcohol. As Dr Petra Meier, who leads the Sheffield team, admitted, it’s “like a weather forecast” and we all know how reliable they are.

That’s why the whole world is watching what might happen in Scotland. And they’re going to have to be patient. The NHS has proposed a five-year evaluation plan covering all the consequences, intended and unintended.

Something else has begun to bother me about Sheffield, though. The IARP ‘mission statement’ includes the lines:

Controlling alcoholic affordability and availability are amongst the most effective policy options available to governments. These policies can be unpopular with consumers and industry, so it is imperative that decisions are based on sound evaluation of evidence, assessment of how evidence applies in the local context, modelling of predicted outcomes and evaluation of actual effects.

“Controlling alcoholic affordability and availability” are key tenets of medical temperance, an ideology underpinned by the theory that reducing alcohol consumption across a whole population is the way to reduce alcohol harm. For the IARP it appears to be a starting assumption rather than a thesis to be scientifically tested.

And by recognising that such policies “can be unpopular with consumers and industry” it also seems to have no illusions about the important political role it has to play in providing evidence that ‘proves’ they work.

It might also be worth noting a couple of names that jumped out at me from the list of IARP team members.

Professor Peter Anderson, the Netherlands-based consultant to the project, and Ben Baumberg, a lecturer at the University of Kent, have both worked closely with the Institute of Alcohol Studies, an organisation largely funded by the Alliance House Foundation – to the tune of nearly £300,000 last year.

The Alliance House Foundation states as its aim the promotion of “the principles of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks” and is the UK branch of international hardline temperance network the Independent Order of Good Templars.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist or anything but all this does make it sound like the IARP has made its mind up before it starts work.

Of course, the IARP team have got to make a living, and this, I think, is the problem. Their research is inevitably shaped by the political debates surrounding the drink question. For all the apparent determination to come up with an evidence-based alcohol policy, the tendency, still, is to produce policy-based evidence.

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