Saturday, 9 March 2013

A million miles from 1984

"Britain Slips Down World Death Table" screams the newspaper headline, going on to assert that, "Rising levels of drink and drug abuse are turning Britain into one of the sickest countries in the Western world". Later in the article, the culprits are said to be alcohol, tobacco, high blood pressure and obesity. At face value, this looks plausible, seeing that the UK has gone down from 10 to 14 in the table that compares premature death rates in 19 wealthy nations (which isn't exactly the world, seeing that there are nearly 180 other countries on the planet). In addition, we are told that cases of cirrhosis of the liver, usually attributed to alcohol, have risen by 65% between 1990 and 2010.

It's not looking good for us, except that the article later states that the UK's average life expectancy has risen by 4.2 years between 1990 and 2010; it's now 79.9 years. So are we getting sicker or not? Clearly, if life expectancy is increasing, our general health must be improving, but that's not the message the headline conveys, i.e. that we are going down, when in fact we are simply going up more slowly than some other countries, but that doesn't make such a good story, does it? It does irritate me that statistics are being misrepresented for the sake of a good, shock-horror news story. Birkonian has a few other observations about the report too.

The cirrhosis statistic cannot so easily be dismissed, but I can't help wondering whether the draconian policies of successive governments concerning under age drinking haven't contributed to the problem. When I was drinking under age, we did it in pubs, drinking a few pints in a well-behaved manner (you didn't want to draw attention to yourself and be thrown out). As well as limiting the amount of alcohol you consumed, you also developed good drinking habits.

Not so now: you can buy a cheap bottle of vodka for the price of 3 or 4 pints, drink it at home, in the park or, as I saw recently, on the train going to a night out. Necking vodka quickly, even diluted with a soft drink, inflicts a massive alcohol hit on the system that cannot be achieved by drinking beer. When I was in my teens and twenties, drinking spirits was a rarity; now it's commonplace with young people, and has been for a while. I am certain that the Law of Unintended Consequences is at work here, in that legislation designed to protect young people from the damage that alcohol can undoubtedly cause, especially to a body that hasn't finished developing, is in reality driving many young people in a direction of greater damage. I'm not suggesting this explains all of the 65% rise in cirrhosis, but I'd be very surprised if it weren't a contributory factor. In other words, the cure is making the problem worse. Not only that, unregulated drinking is much more likely to lead to antisocial behaviour than drinking in a pub or bar.

It's a pity that health campaigners and public policy makers don't take a more holistic view of the problem and the potential effects of their suggested solutions. Instead we are given dubious university research that suggests that a rise in alcohol prices of X per unit will result in saving of Y number of lives, coupled with further demands to rack up the penalties on licensees who serve under age drinkers. Last year, when the BBC quoted completely inaccurate figures in a programme about the effects of alcohol on older drinkers (the mistake was the university researchers', not the BBC's), I demanded that they correct the information in a later broadcast of the programme concerned. They said they'd corrected it on the website, and my argument that most people who had seen the programme were unlikely to look at the website was dismissed. The logical conclusion is that it's okay to broadcast duff info in error and not correct it, as long as that misinformation supports the anti-alcohol campaigners' cause. I'm certain if the errors had gone the other way, the Beeb would caved in to pressure to broadcast a correction on air.

That's what we have to deal with nowadays; it's not a million miles away from 1984, is it?


  1. I would say it's very likely that "alcohol harm" statistics will lag alcohol consumption figures by a number of years. But actual per-capita consumption has been falling for nearly a decade now.

  2. I agree about the lag, but I did see a TV programme about a young man in his twenties who'd had a stroke attributed to his habit of drinking more than a bottle of vodka every single day. Habitual spirits drinkers will see the damage much more quickly than people who frequently drink beer to excess.


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