“Slow news day produces unexpected headlines”: researcher reacts to Guardian front page

The researcher responsible for a Guardian front page suggesting a soaring alcohol misuse epidemic could kill 63,000 people said the real headline should have been: “slow news day produces unexpected headlines”.

John Holmes, alcohol policy researcher at University of Sheffield, was responding to a Tweet from CapX editor Robert Colville.

After reading the Guardian’s front page, Colville Tweeted: “This story on deaths via drinking typifies how lazy we (media) are re statistics.”

Holmes responded: “As one of the researchers who provided data, I think the real story here is ‘slow news day produces unexpected headlines’.”

The anti-alcohol lobby used Sheffield University’s estimations to argue for a minimum unit price on alcohol, among other punitive measures.

Industry commentator Chris Snowdon wrote a blog piece on Cap-X arguing that the Guardian “needs to sober up about booze”, accusing it of putting “tripe” on its front page.

He said: “Upon reading the article, you will find that it is not a group of doctors making this claim, rather it is ‘some of Britain’s leading academic experts on alcohol’.

“Those of you who follow alcohol politics won’t be surprised to hear these ‘academic experts’ are the usual bunch of modellers from Sheffield University who have been producing research favourable to minimum pricing whenever the Scottish government asks for it.

“But even these ‘academic experts’ are not claiming that alcohol-related deaths are ‘soaring’. Because they are not. 

“Alcohol-related deaths have been declining in recent years and this is mostly due to a sharp decline in Scotland, the country at the centre of the minimum pricing row.

“Indeed, nowhere in the text of the article does anybody – doctor or otherwise – say that alcohol-related deaths are rising, or will rise. The headline is a sensationalist fabrication. But it needs to be sensational to disguise the fact that the story itself barely justifies being in a newspaper at all – let alone being on the front page. It is entirely based on some ballpark figures from the Sheffield modelling team.

“According to the ONS, there are around 9,000 alcohol-related deaths a year, so this projection looks a little on the high side but the Sheffield team are using a broader (and probably justifiable) definition of ‘alcohol-related’. Inevitably, they then provide yet another set of predictions about what minimum pricing could do, as set out in the [Guardian] article: ‘The Sheffield academics have also produced new calculations showing that, if a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol were introduced in England, within five years it would mean 1,150 fewer deaths due to drink…’

“In other words, it would reduce the number of deaths by less than two per cent. And that is based on a dreadfully flawed model which uses unrealistic assumptions about price elasticity to inflate the positive effect.

“How much money will the British public have to shell out on needlessly expensive drinks to achieve this feeble and almost certainly exaggerated benefit? Alas, we are not told because there is no attempt to look at the policy on normal cost-benefit grounds, nor does the article quote any of the policy’s numerous critics.

“It does, however, quote Ian Gilmore and Katherine Brown, both of whom are part of the Alcohol Health Alliance and are members of the tiny clique of activists who work with Public Health England and the Chief Medical Officer to influence government policy.

“The Sheffield team is very much part of that clique and has become virtually a monopoly provider of research promoting minimum pricing. They were commissioned by the Scottish government to look at the policy after the SNP had already committed itself to it. Later, when politicians complained that the policy is regressive and would hurt moderate drinkers, they conjured up some figures which purported to show that it wouldn’t.”

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