Myths and moral panic

on 15 November, 2017

I am fed-up with politicians and academics with an agenda endlessly repeating the same old anti-alcohol tropes – usually without having the faintest idea about where they came from or whether they are true. I recently heard a minister (who must remain nameless because the meeting at which he spoke was under Chatham House rules) repeat that old canard that “minimum pricing is justified because alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices, often cheaper than water”. Now, maybe Tesco’s cheapest “everyday lager” has been sold for less than the most expensive bottle of Perrier, but the idea that supermarket shelves are stacked with booze that is cheaper than water is just nonsense. I asked the minister could he give us even one example of this and he couldn’t. What is true is that certain brands of bottled water are outrageously expensive. Just saying!

Here are some other whoppers from the health lobby:

“Alcohol is responsible for over a million hospital admissions a year.” Not it’s not. The figure is nearer 330,000 admissions and because of what medics term ‘frequent flyers’ – people who regularly rock-up at A&E departments injured after a drunken fight – these admissions are generated by around 100,000 people.

“Alcohol costs society/the NHS/the taxpayer (take your pick) £21 billion a year.” No it doesn’t. This is actually a ‘cost to society’ figure and it comes from a piece of research done for the cabinet office in 2003. The actual cost of alcohol misuse to the public purse is around £3 billion a year, but alcohol duty and VAT on alcohol duty raises £9.5 billion a year. So drinkers are subsidising non-drinkers to the tune of around £6.5 billion a year. The other alleged costs of alcohol misuse are private costs, based on hugely inflated estimates arrived at by assigning a monetary value to things like personal suffering arising out of alcoholism; or assigning a monetary cost to the amount of economic production lost by people who go to work with hangovers – the cost of ‘presenteeism’!

And then only last week the Justice Secretary David Lidington declared at a meeting that alcohol-related crime – defined as any crime where the victim thought the perpetrator had been drinking – was a growing problem when actually it is decreasing.

“We’re drinking more and more each year.” Actually alcohol consumption per head has fallen by nearly a fifth since its peak in 2004, and is now at the lowest level it has been this century.

I don’t like the term ‘fake news’ because it’s associated with Donald Trump, but fake news is exactly what the neo-temperance cranks of Alcohol Concern and the Institute of Alcohol Studies rely on to keep the moral panic around alcohol use going. When you repeat a lie often enough it becomes an accepted truth and no one thinks to question it.

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