There are lots of myths about alcohol pricing, promotion and harm. Below, Diageo corporate social responsibility manager Mark Baird tackles 10 of the most regularly repeated myths.
I firmly believe that our industry is committed to responsible drinking, marketing and retailing, but it is unfortunate when we see alcohol issues misrepresented in the press and elsewhere.
We all agree that we need evidence-based solutions to tackle alcohol-related harm, but such articles and opinions give a false impression of the scale of alcohol misuse in Britain by knowingly or unknowingly distorting or exaggerating the facts and as a result, all the good work that is being done within the industry often gets lost among the morass of 'noise' caused by such misrepresentations.
I have endeavoured to capture below 10 of the most common myths about alcohol in Britain today together with the reality:
Myth No 1:
Alcohol is cheaper than ever before.
Reality: The price of alcohol has increased by 20% since 1980 when measured against RPI. But average earnings have practically doubled over the same period so alcohol is now more affordable NOT cheaper. (Source: Office for National Statistics)
Myth No 2:
The Sheffield University Review of "The Effects of Alcohol Pricing and Promotion" offers evidence that minimum pricing will reduce alcohol harm.
Reality: The Sheffield review offers a model of what might happen if a minimum price for alcohol was introduced. It is not evidence — it is a theoretical model — no more, no less. There is no evidence anywhere in the world to show that minimum pricing, as proposed by the Sheffield researchers, would reduce alcohol-related harm because that model of minimum pricing has never been tried anywhere else. It is simply modelling using available data; indeed, the principal investigator, Dr Petra Meier, admitted to a recent Health Committee that the model was "like the weather forecast".
Myth No 3:
Over the five years to 2008/09 there has been around a 65% increase in the number of people being admitted to hospital due to alcohol. There were 945,469 admissions to hospital for alcohol-related harm in England in 2008/09. This is 825 alcohol-related admissions a day more than five years ago.
Reality: Nobody knows how many hospital admissions are actually alcohol-related. The vast majority of people (like I used to) believe that alcohol-related admissions and alcohol-related deaths are diagnosed and classified by a qualified clinician — not a bit of it. The figures are all estimated from yet another sophisticated modelling technique — 'Alcohol Attributable Fractions'.
In 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) undertook a study to estimate the global burden of disease attributable to alcohol. These studies have estimated the disease burden and acute consequences of alcohol consumption through the calculation of attributable (or aetiological) fractions.
The attributable fraction may be defined as the proportion of disease risk in a population that would not have occurred if exposure to a risk factor or set of factors had not occurred.
The alcohol-attributable fraction (AAF) is therefore calculated as a positive function of the prevalence of drinking (the exposure) and the relative risk function of each alcohol-related condition (the disease risk) to enable the estimation of the proportion of cases of a disease or type of injury that may be attributed to the consumption of alcohol.
Estimating alcohol attributable mortality and morbidity can be a useful indicator for developing national and local alcohol strategies. Current AAFs for England are adapted from the International Guide for Monitoring Alcohol Consumption and Related Harm (2000), published by WHO (Source: North West Public Health Authority).
So there you have it. All the figures we read about alcohol-related hospital admissions and alcohol-related deaths are simply an estimate calculated from a 10-year-old model.
Myth No 4:
A minimum price of 50p per unit would have a significant impact on alcohol misuse in Britain.
Reality: The Sheffield University Review predicts that an 18 to 24-year-old binge drinker will drink 0.8 units of alcohol less per week — this is about a third of a pint of lager over the course of seven days! Alternatively, they would need to spend only an extra £1.14 per week to keep on drinking at the same level as before. A harmful drinker, classified as those drinking over 50 units per week, is predicted to drink one unit less per day or around half a pint of lager. Does anyone really believe that these amounts will address this country's issues with alcohol misuse?
Myth No 5:
In Britain, we have one of the worst rates of liver disease in the world.
Reality: We're not even one of the worst in Europe. See the table. England is below the European average and 16 out of 27 countries have worse rates of liver disease than us.
Myth No 6:
Bans on alcohol advertising are an effective means to reduce alcohol misuse.
Reality: Since 1991, France has had some of the tightest advertising restrictions in the world — the "Loi Evin." No alcohol advertising is allowed on television or in cinemas, no sponsorship of sport or cultural events and there are very strict controls on any press advertising — but has it worked? Apparently not!
A 1999 report by the French Parliament evaluating the effectiveness of France's advertising ban concluded that no effect on alcohol consumption could be established.
The slow decline in alcohol consumption was deemed not to be correlated with the "Loi Evin" and attributed to other factors. In addition, between 1999 and 2007, the numbers of heavy drinking teenagers in France rose by 30% against a rise of only 8% in the UK over the same period.
Myth No 7:
Whole population measures are the most effective in reducing harmful alcohol consumption. A 1% fall in alcohol consumption will result in 3,403 fewer alcohol admissions per year.
Reality: Recent evidence proves the opposite. If we take the fall in alcohol consumption figures from the BBPA from 2004 to 2008, then alcohol-related hospital admissions should have fallen by 52,000 over this period. They didn't, in fact they rose by 301,000, according to NHS statistics. And as an aside, alcohol-related deaths rose by 735 over the same period, apparently disproving a direct link between alcohol consumption at a population level and alcohol harm.
Myth No 8:
Underage and teenage drinking is getting worse and worse.
Reality: The proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds who have NEVER had a drink has risen in recent years from 39% in 2003 to 48% now.
(Source: Statistics on Alcohol: England 2010, NHS)
Myth No 9:
It's the quantity rather than the
content of advertising which has the greatest effect.
Reality: During a 12-year period, spending on beer advertising rose by 17% while sales declined by 12% and over the same period, spend on wine advertising reduced by 60% and sales increased by 50%. You do the maths!
(Source: British Beer & Pub Assn)
Myth No 10:
Britons are drinking more and more each year.
Reality: We've been drinking less and less each year since 2004 and our alcohol consumption is falling at the fastest rate for more than 60 years. The latest statistics published by the NHS in May of this year show that:
• 81% of men and 73% of women drink within Government guidelines
• Average weekly consumption has fallen, as well as the number of people who drink on five or more days per week
• Male binge-drinking is down
• The number of 16 to 24-year-olds drinking above Government guidelines is down
• The number of harmful drinkers has fallen (those drinking more than 50 units per week).
(Source: Statistics on Alcohol: England 2010, NHS)