Tuesday, 22 September 2015


You’ve got to hand it to the health lobby – when it comes to consistent messaging they could teach the politicians and the election strategists a thing or two. We’ve just had ‘oral hearings’ before the European Court of Justice concerning the legality of minimum unit pricing (MUP). These hearings arose because of the legal challenge mounted by the Scotch Whisky Association and others to the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce MUP in Scotland. This is a test case that will decide whether Scotland and other temperance-minded countries in Europe are free to introduce this measure.

As if by magic we have the publication on Wednesday of an OECD report into alcohol harms which made a number of claims about UK consumption that are demonstrably false. These claims were faithfully and uncritically repeated in a number of media outlets, including the BBC. And of course our own domestic healthists couldn’t resist the temptation to parrot the nonsense. Below is the press release from the Royal Society for Public Health:

New research which shows alcohol consumption in the UK is on the rise is a stark reminder of the pressing need for tougher action.

RSPH have long been advocating for the implementation of a range of measures to combat alcohol-related harm, including minimum unit pricing, calorie labelling and compulsory PSHE education, and urge the new government to take action.

The report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the UK above average in the study which compared the 34 wealthiest countries. It drew particular attention to increased consumption among women and 11-15 year olds. (My bolding).

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health commented: “This report clearly demonstrated that softer methods to discourage excessive drinking have not been successful and adds further weight to the need for stricter controls. It is particularly worrying to see increases in drinking among young people and the new government urgently needs to implement a tougher strategy to stop this upward trend.

Our research has already shown demonstrated an appetite exists for improved labelling for alcohol, so what are we waiting for? There is no one-size-fits-all approach and we urgently need a range of policies and tactics which can influence behaviour across the population and protect the health of generations to come.”

Note the pious tone of the above and the call for tougher action necessitated by these ‘new facts’. However, the factual inaccuracies of this were then challenged by beer writer Pete Brown who wrote to RSPH as follows:

“I was surprised to read your press release on rising alcohol consumption given that every official data source shows a decline in both claimed behaviour as monitored by ONS and actual market data. I'm particularly surprised to read that drinking is rising among 11-15 year-olds, as numerous studies indicate that it's plummeting. When I followed the link the study wasn't available. Could you please explain why you think alcohol consumption is rising, and send me the data that seems to show this, including methodology? I look forward to your reply. Kind regards Pete Brown.”
Pete’s email absolutely nailed it, and elicited this response from RSPH:

Hi Pete, 

Thank you for your email. We were referring to the findings of the recent OECD report www.oecd.org however have since been alerted to several inaccuracies in the report and took our comment down immediately. We are currently reviewing the claims in depth and will be issuing a statement later in the week. Many thanks.

 Kate Sanger
 Communications Manager, Royal Society for Public Health

Subsequently RSPH has amended the offending parts of their post to read:

“We welcome the OECD report which has brought tackling alcohol related harm back into the spotlight.

We are however concerned that the figures in the report do not correlate with official government statistics which lean towards a downward trend for alcohol consumption and binge drinking in the UK. It is important the public is presented with an accurate picture of the nation’s health and an evidence base that is robust. The health and social consequences of excessive drinking are too serious to risk confusing the public.”

Oops, red faces all round at the RSPH! A couple of things occur to me about this climb-down: firstly, why didn’t RSPH check the facts before publishing this nonsense with all the authority of their status behind it, and why didn’t the media? Secondly, will their retraction be given the same prominence as their original statement? Various other self-appointed, socially-accredited experts also pronounced including, inevitably, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance. They are all so desperate to influence the decision of the ECJ in relation to minimum pricing that they don’t care if the ‘facts’ they publish are true or not. This is another example of the technique of the ‘noble lie’ – it’s OK to tell ’em as long as you do so in a noble cause.

The OECD report goes on to advocate the usual stuff about rising levels of consumption being down to increases in availability, cheap prices and cunningly designed adverts – all of which need laws passing so as to reduce availability (close pubs), raise price (increase alcohol duty and introduce MUP) and ban alcohol advertising and sport sponsorship. One interesting trend highlighted by the report was the high rates of problem drinking among educated women. Apparently nearly one in five women from the highest educated groups drink to hazardous levels compared to one in ten among the least educated group. And then they advocate minimum pricing as the solution!
You couldn’t make this up, but fortunately they already have.

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