Thursday 29 January 2015

Nutt As A Fruitcake

Professor David Nutt - the ex government adviser who admirably favours drug legalisation and is a fan of e-cigs - would be a much easier person to like if he wasn't such a raving arse when it comes to alcohol.

Today he has written a mess of a piece for the Spectator arguing for fewer restrictions on cannabis and MDMA (ecstasy) while disingenuously pushing drinkers off a cliff. The utter crap he spouts about minimum alcohol pricing in particular is jaw-dropping.
... alcohol is cheaper and more easily available than it has been since the gin-epidemic of the 1700s ...
It was true five years ago that alcohol was more expensive in real terms by 19.3% than in the 1980s, and the duty escalator on alcohol has added even more to that statistic since. I don't remember having much problem buying booze back then either.
... and half of all 15-16 year olds are becoming dangerously intoxicated at least once a month.
I doubt that statistic very much, but I suppose it depends on what one describes as "dangerously intoxicated" I suppose. My guess is that Nutt is applying a particularly low bar here. But however you cut it, all measures of child and youth alcohol consumption are dramatically in decline, and have been for over a decade, so his hyperbole is badly applied.

He continues ...
Alcohol misuse costs the UK about £30 billion per year ...
No it doesn't, but still.
[P]revention is preferred to treatment and here we have a number of proven strategies that focus on reducing dangerous levels of consumption. The easiest and least intrusive of these is minimum unit pricing of alcohol.
Minimum pricing is "proven" is it? And there was I thinking it was just a flawed computer model produced by incompetent university temperance enthusiasts.
However whenever this is discussed publicly it provokes a barrage of attacks from the right-wing press, probably driven by lobbying from the drinks industry ...
Citation needed, you lazy Professor, you.
... with claims of ‘punishing the responsible drinker’ and politicians of both colours meekly accede. The truth is exactly the opposite, minimum unit pricing of 50p per unit would in practice save the ‘responsible’ drinker significant amounts of money.
No it wouldn't, because the premium of a brand would necessitate rising prices right up the scale. If cheap booze is raised to a similar price as branded stuff, the branded stuff will increase in price to protect the differential. Minimum pricing would cost every responsible drinker more, and the poorest would naturally feel it in their pocket most because of the margins being more acute to those with less disposable income. This is economics and business 101.

But still, let's hear him out.
To understand how this works we need to realise that almost every drinker – and certainly every subscriber to the Spectator – will already be drinking alcohol that is priced at more than 50p/unit as this translates into £3.50 per bottle of wine or £15 per bottle of spirits. In fact the only people drinking alcohol that costs less than 50p per unit are those that contribute the most costs of alcohol harm to our society. These are the young binge drinker and the older alcoholic. Increasing the minimum price of alcohol to these two groups would reduce consumption and harm.
That's right. Apparently, the "only" people who buy cheap alcohol are young binge-drinkers and codgers with a drink problem. No-one else. At all. The poor in society who drink responsibly but can only afford the very cheapest alcohol don't actually exist - funny that, considering Labour keep telling us there is a 'cost of living crisis'. If every responsible drinker is able to afford brand names instead of supermarket own brand vodka, it kinda suggests someone is lying to us, don't it?

As an aside, I find it curious that tobacco vending machines - by far the most expensive way of buying cigarettes - had to be banned because children were flocking to them, yet low-priced alcohol being raised by a few pence is brilliant policy because kids haven't got much money.

Anyhow, I digress.
Today the cost of alcohol misuse in the UK is around £30 billion per year —about £1000 per tax-payer.
No, David, it really isn't.
This sum might be thought acceptable to those who drink heavily but surely not to responsible drinkers. The 10 per cent of the population who are non-drinkers are particularly penalised since they get no benefit from using alcohol at all.
I believe they do. You see, if they don't drink, they don't pay any of the £9bn in alcohol duty the government derives from those who do, not to mention the £2bn VAT on top.
Real life experience in a province in Canada showed that introduced minimum pricing recently found a 10% increase in minimum unit price led to a 30% reduction in alcohol deaths.
No, Nutty, that didn't happen either, as Snowdon explained recently.
This is a reference to a statistical analysis of data from British Columbia conducted by Tim Stockwell (yes, him again). Stockwell claimed that there was a large drop in wholly alcohol-attributable deaths in 2006-07 which roughly coincided with some (fairly minor) increases in the minimum price of some drinks. 
Alas, this is entirely inconsistent with the established facts. Official statistics show that the alcohol mortality rate in British Columbia rose from 26 per 100,000 persons to 28 per 100,000 persons between 2002 and 2008. As the graph below shows, neither mortality (solid line) nor per capita alcohol consumption (dotted line) fell during this period. 
Between 2002 and 2011, the number of deaths directly attributed to alcohol in British Columbia rose from 315 to 443 with the largest annual death rates occurring after the minimum price rises of 2006. Between 2006 and 2008, when further minimum price rises occurred, the number of deaths rose from 383 to a peak of 448. Moreover, the rate of hospitalisations for both alcohol-related ailments and acute intoxication both rose during this decade.
So considering just about everything Nutt has said so far is demonstrably wrong, his further calculations are simply laughable.
Our two groups of consumers of cheap alcohol (the young and the alcohol dependent) contribute about 30 per cent the total burden of costs of alcohol (about £10bill/year) so reducing this by a quarter would save around £2.50 billion a year — the price of 8 new hospitals – or a tax-rebate of £100 or so per taxpayer.
The true, actual cost to the taxpayer is orders of magnitude lower than that at around £6.6bn, which is of course adequately covered by duty income. But even if we discount that and agree with Nutt's debatable share of costs, the quarter cost of £1.65bn is offset by the half billion cost of implementing the policy in the first place, as admitted in the Sheffield model itself.

There's more from Nutt.
Properly pricing alcohol can lead to a virtuous circle of health and wealth. France is a remarkable example of this.
You mean that France where booze is so considerably cheaper than here that we all pick some up on the way back from the place?
What is even more remarkable is the fact that the French alcohol industry has become more profitable; more expensive wine has greater profit margins. 
The UK alcohol industry is well aware of these data, and must accept that they would be more profitable under a more-expensive minimum-priced alcohol policy. So why do they resist any attempt to develop a more rational policy even one as minor as minimum pricing? One view is that they rely on the cheap super-strength ciders and lagers that have come on to the market in recent years to get young drinkers addicted.
And 9/11 was a government plot, yes David. {wibble}
My view is that they have taken a collective position to oppose any change in drink regulations on principle even if it would in the long run benefit them. Their profits are so enormous; they just can’t be bothered to innovate. 
Because anyone visiting the booze area of the supermarket can't fail to notice the complete lack of about 9 different types of Bacardi which weren't available 15 years ago. You know, when innovation and competition died as a concept for the drinks industry. Considering the anti-alcohol lobby has been fighting against the marketing of hundreds of new and innovative products for the past couple of decades, this has to be the daftest claim of the lot.

Now, it's clear that Nutt is a big fan of more realistic policies on drug use, and for that he is to be congratulated. But he is a piss poor advocate of common sense towards drugs when he is spouting such utter bollocks on alcohol.

Fortunately, no-one buys his transparent nonsense and he's getting caned in the comments. Good.


Mark Wadsworth said...

I don't get it. Booze is good. Imagine a society without booze. It would be horrible. We can argue about the wider "costs" of booze, like fighting in the streets and drink driving and so on, but hey. By and large, it's for the better. Have these people ever calculated the notional cost to society of actually staying stone cold sober, for the rest of your life? i dread to think.

SteveW said...

Shit, apparently I'm "...probably driven by lobbying from the drinks industry..."
I've always assumed I was funding them.

Jax said...

I don’t understand Nutt at all. I sometimes think that he’s just a bit of a loon who wants “change for change’s sake.” Maybe, like so many senior politicians, now, he’s desperately looking for that elusive “legacy” that they all seem to want these days. He clearly despises all our old, traditional “vices” but supports any kind of change to something different, simply because it is different.

Of course, the fact that (as I heard on the radio just a few days ago), he (along with help from the usual suspects in Big Pharma, maybe?) has developed a pill which mimics the effect of being intoxicated by alcohol, but without the so-called “health damage” might just be influencing his opinions a tadge. Sort of like NRT, but for drinkers. Which, I expect, will be just about as successful as NRT, with its 96% failure rate, is in getting smokers to quit. “Pill and tonic, anyone?” just doesn’t have the right ring to it, somehow …

And yes, Mark, these fools are only too aware of the damage which all these prohibitionist activities are having, and will continue have, on society if unabated, but the crucial point is that they don’t care - not a jot and not for a second.

nisakiman said...

... and half of all 15-16 year olds are becoming dangerously intoxicated at least once a month.

Presumably Prof Nutt skipped adolescence, then? When getting drunk enough to indulge in the traditional technicolour yawn was a rite of passage?

Once a month? I doubt it. Once a year, maybe, when the last vomitous experience has faded into a hazy memory and getting ratfaced seems like a good idea again. Good heavens, I remember getting horribly drunk on Scrumpy at 14, and I couldn't even think about drinking cider again for the next 30 years. I think most of us have had a similar experience. It's how we learn.

Junican said...

The problem is that people like Nutt work on this sort of logic:
1. A small number of people are alcoholics.
2. A small number of people occasionally binge.
3. That is a bad thing.
4. Therefore the answer is to INCREASE THE PRICE OF ALCOHOL.
5. The price must be increased for everyone.
6. That is a good thing.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

No, that would mess up their figures because - as Timmy once pointed out - the massive benefits would blow 'public health' lobbyists' figures out of the water. So best ignore all positives.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Aye, collective punishment, it's always been the way.

nisakiman said...

Same as smoking.

As far as PH and TC are concerned, there are NO benefits from smoking, only negatives.

The ONLY reason people smoke (or vape) is because they're hopelessly addicted to nicotine. None of them enjoy it, they all wish they could quit, they are all eternally grateful for the smoking bans and punitive taxes that helps them quit, and they all wish they had never started.

truckerlyn said...

That is the biggest problem of all - none of them in power ever think to research all sides and angles to find what are often the many harmful and unintended consequences of their actions!

Cause and effect (consequences) was something I made sure to educate my daughter in as she was growing up. It is very valuable lesson, I believe!

truckerlyn said...

As the old saying goes 'it is always the few that spoil it for the rest of us'!

truckerlyn said...

I know many people who won't touch a particular drink any more because of how bad it made them years/decades ago!

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