Happy 10th birthday £21bn alcohol cost estimate!

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Cost, Costs

Brown: "£21bn - no one knows where you came from, and no one is able to measure your largest parts"
Brown: "£21bn - no one knows where you came from, and no one is able to measure your largest parts"
The figure for the so-called 'cost of alcohol' to the UK economy is simply a will-o’-the-wisp, says Pete Brown.

I can’t believe you’re 10 years old already. Why, just last week, you were being talked about in the national press as if you were the biggest new arrival since the royal baby. You don’t look your age. But then, close up, you don’t look too substantial at all. The harder I gaze at you, the more you seem to be unreal, a figment of someone’s imagination.

I have to admit, when I saw you in the papers last week, I was amazed anyone still believed in you. But there you were, as real as a creationist manifesto in an Alabama school.

All credit to you then that — weak and insubstantial as you are — you seem to have arrived at your 10th birthday in rude health.

So let me raise a glass to you: Happy Birthday, Government Estimate That Alcohol Costs the UK Economy £21bn A Year!

You looked so interesting, so provocative when I first saw you. £21bn as the true cost of alcohol to society. That’s shocking! Horrified, I read more about you, to see what you were made of.

I have to tell you, I didn’t like what I saw. The larger your component parts, the more impossible they are to measure: £4.6bn of you is ‘the emotional impact costs for the victims of crime’. What is ‘emotional impact’ and why does it cost the British economy such an astonishing amount — a
quarter of the entire total?

Your next highest number is ‘property/health and victim services’ for the victims of alcohol related crime — £2.5bn.

And then we have a cost to the economy — ‘lost output due to premature death’ — £2.2bn.


Sorry, I’m really not following this.

Already that’s half your total that consists of costs that are so insubstantial, so impossible to measure, I don’t understand how anyone can even think of putting a figures on them, especially figures so large.

You contain a direct cost of ‘alcohol specific’ offences to the criminal justice system of just £29m, and the broader cost of ‘alcohol related’ offences (where alcohol is considered just one of a number of factors in the crime) is £1.7bn. But then the cost ‘in anticipation of alcohol related crime’ — you specify this as ‘alarms etc’ — is £1.5bn.

So if I’m reading this right, crimes that are directly due to alcohol cost us £29m, but ‘drunk alarms’ — I have to admit I’ve never seen one and have no idea what one would be like — costs us 10 times that? And the emotional impact of that crime costs almost 100 times that?

Oh, and does the cost of ambulance services appear twice, once at £205m and once at £20m? And if the total health-care cost that is both wholly (£126m) and partly (£344.2m) attributable to alcohol comes to a total of £470m, are we expected to believe that the cost of ambulances associated with this health care is almost half as much again?

I hadn’t realised we were hiring gold-plated stretch limos to ferry drunks to A&E every Friday night.


It would be great if the people who created you could help us understand what you’re made of, and also why you have been revised upwards by £1bn in real terms even as the amount of alcohol-related harm in society has fallen.

But two years ago FullFact, an independent fact-checking organisation with no pro-drink agenda, was unable to find anyone in the Department of Health who would admit to having worked on you, and no one who could give them an explanation of the calculations behind you. That’s why they declared they did ‘not feel able to rely on’ you.

So I was confused when, just last week, there you were yet again, national news as part of a campaign to convince the chancellor to keep his punitive alcohol duty escalator in place.

Although no one knows where you came from, and no one is able to measure your largest parts, you were compared with the amount of tax and duty paid on alcohol. People who I am sure think of themselves as intelligent and honest said that because you — with all your flaws, after being so discredited, with so little proof you even exist — are a bigger ‘number’ than the cold, hard cash collected by the Treasury every year, the Chancellor should consider you when formulating UK economic policy.


You remind me of the infamous ‘dentist’s chair’ drinking game which in 2010 — when MPs debated it specifically and cited it as an example of the antisocial behaviour they needed to legislate against — was happening in one Newcastle nightclub, and nowhere else.

Like the demons and bogeymen with which our parents used to scare us as children, you don’t actually exist at all, do you?

And yet here I am, talking to you, because so many others believe in you. I dare say I’ll still be doing the same when you turn 20.

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