One of the interesting things about the EU referendum is the public clamour for “the facts”. People are bamboozled by claim and counterclaim and long for someone just to explain things to them in a simple, factual manner, without spin or bias. I’m not proposing to discuss the ‘Neverendum’ in this article, but this desire for ‘simple facts’, and for simple solutions to complex problems that will supposedly arise from simple facts, has a much wider resonance. There are three examples of it currently in the news: the Scottish alcohol consumption figures, leading to a renewed call for minimum unit pricing (MUP); the challenge posed by the National Obesity Forum to established science on nutrition; and the banning of so-called legal highs, otherwise known as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).
Scotland has for a long time had a greater level of alcohol consumption per head than England and Wales and the news that consumption per head of population has risen in Scotland for the second year running was coupled in the media with the observation that Scots drink 20% more alcohol than their English and Welsh counterparts. This gives the erroneous impression that consumption in Scotland has risen by 20%. It hasn’t. It has risen by 2%. And that 2% rise in consumption is over two years – 2014 and 2015. This needs to be placed in the context of a 9% fall in alcohol consumption between 2007 and 2013, so the simple fact is that alcohol consumption in Scotland is still 7% lower than in 2007.
But this tiny upturn has been blamed by campaigners on the alcohol industry’s desire to arrest the decline in sales. At the same time we have seen a big increase in the amount of alcohol consumed at home – 74% of alcohol is now bought from off-sales retailers - so, blame the dastardly supermarkets? Well how about we look instead at the lowering of the drink-drive limit in Scotland as something that has driven people out of pubs and into home drinking - where we know that people pour themselves bigger measures than when they drink in the supervised environment of the pub.
According to Alcohol Research UK weekly alcohol consumption per head in England and Wales in 2015 was 17.4 units; in Scotland it was 20.8 units. This is moderate drinking by anyone’s standards except the anti-alcohol zealots of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Focus Scotland. And what is the Scottish health community’s solution to this over-hyped, over-inflated problem? Why, minimum unit pricing of course!
And what of the National Obesity Forum’s assertion this week that high fat diets are good for you and that low carb and low sugar diets are the answer? This assertion from a bunch of Atkins Diet cranks is another example of how tiny special interest groups feed into the public’s desire for simple solutions. Identify one ingredient – sugar – and tell people to consume as much bacon and eggs, beef dripping and lard as they want – just cut down on the sugar, and you’re giving people another simple solution to a complex problem. And government bows to this kind of campaigning by introducing a tax on fizzy drinks – something that will have no effect whatsoever on levels of obesity.
My third example – the ban on ‘legal highs’ - kicks in today. Readers are probably aware of substances like Spice, which is a synthetic drug that mimics the effects of cannabis, and M-Cat, which has similar effects to strong amphetamine drugs. These and many other compounds are available on the internet and at so-called ‘head shops’ on the high street. They have been linked to around 400 deaths over the past few years, and Spice in particular is blamed for an upsurge of violence in our prisons. The problem for the government is that every time they banned a new legal high the chemical composition was changed slightly so that it became legal again. The government’s response was to ban everything except those intoxicants that were explicitly legal – essentially alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. I can understand the government’s desire to be seen to do something about this problem, but there are problems with this prohibition-style approach.
Firstly, many of these drugs mimic the effects of existing illegal drugs – cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. Given that successive governments’ have ruled out decriminalising or medicalising their supply, prohibition becomes the only option. So, first criminalise the three main recreational drugs, and then when that leads to the creation of a market for cheaper, ‘legal’ synthetic alternatives, criminalise them too. Sale of these drugs will now move to the dark web and it is unlikely that anyone who wants them won’t be able to get them. There is no simple solution to the drugs problem, but we must surely be able to come up with something more intelligent than repeating a failed strategy of prohibition because the public expects something to be done.