Drink, death and damned press agencies

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags United kingdom

Mellows: "The game is up on inflated alcohol statistics"
Mellows: "The game is up on inflated alcohol statistics"
One in eight deaths in the UK is caused by alcohol. This story was splashed across the media last week. So it must be true. But it’s not. They all got it wrong. How could that have happened? Here’s my reconstruction.

A bunch of scientists who go by the rather funky name of Alice Rap sent out a press release​ to draw attention to a meeting in Newcastle to launch their new policy brief.

“…alcohol represents the number one addiction problem in Europe today, greater than any other drug or gambling, with around 1 in every 8 deaths amongst 15-64 year olds being due to alcohol,” it says.

You’ll note it’s talking about Europe, not the UK. And you should also note that phrase “due to”.

The release must have been picked up by the Press Association, one of the world’s leading press agencies. It wrote its own version, substituting the UK for Europe and ‘caused by’ for the admittedly vague ‘due to’, and pushed it out to its media clients, many of which, judging by the similarities between the resulting stories, reproduced it without question.

It appeared in the Daily Mail​ (natch), the Independent​, the Scottish Herald​ plus more, and of course the stories were repeated and tweeted all over the place.

Meanwhile an Alice Rap blog​ posted by Jergen Rehm, a veteran of the field, and Kevin Shield, points to their report for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as the source of the ‘one in eight’ figure.

The CAMH report​ (PDF) estimates that 11.9% (one in eight is 12.5%) of deaths across Europe are alcohol related (p35). There is a breakdown by country which finds the UK very low down the table, on around 7% of deaths (p38) - which is about one in 14.

Even this figure has to be treated with caution. Using World Health Organisation stats Rehm and Shield employ the dubious, if widely used, technique of ‘attributable fractions’ (page 32 and Appendix 2). For an excellent critique of this I refer you, as I have before, to Straight Statistics​.

There is a glimmer of hope​ this might change. Even the medical temperance hawks at the Institute of Alcohol Studies seem to have realised the game is up on inflated alcohol stats, judging by a piece in their latest mag.

But while we have a combination of the impenetrable sums involved in attributable fractions, the media’s desperation for a hysterical soundbite and the ‘churnalism’​ forced on under-staffed newsdesks, it makes for a dangerous cocktail.

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