Monday 4 January 2016

Count The Minimum Alcohol Pricing Deceptions

The Adam Smith Institute's Sam Bowman recently appeared on Irish TV to bring a modicum of truth to the truly idiotic garbage being spouted about minimum alcohol pricing (MUP).

It was a fairly substantial slot so all the aspects could be explored, but as a result this allowed Sam's opponent - Dr Stephen Stewart of the Royal College of Physicians - adequate time to vomit out every half-truth, prejudice, misleading stat, lie and conspiracy wackiness in favour of MUP all in one neatly-packaged video item.

You can watch the whole thing here or below but shall we count the deceptions? Yes, I think we should, don't you?

Claim number 1 from Stewart.
"Does not affect pubs or restaurant prices of alcohol"
This is only true of what is currently planned, but minimum pricing for pubs is, indeed, set out by the Sheffield researchers as a future option. The doctor states in this piece that he has read the Sheffield paper in depth so he surely must know this (page 6 here).
Differential minimum pricing for on-trade and off-trade leads to more substantial reductions in consumption (30p off-trade together with an 80p on-trade minimum price -2.1% versus -0.6% for 30p only; 40p together with 100p -5.4% compared to -2.6% for 40p only). This is firstly because much of the consumption by younger and hazardous drinking groups (including those at increased risk of criminal offending due to high intake on a particular day) occurs in the on-trade. It is also because increasing prices of cheaper alcohol in the on-trade dampens down the behaviour switching effects when off-trade prices are increased.
Now, Stewart could make this argument if his profession aren't well known for demanding more and more restrictions towards total prohibition, but they are. In fact, they are extremely well-known for doing just that and will undoubtedly do so. When MUP fails - as it will most definitely do because it's a load of donkey cock - there will be calls, based on the Sheffield model, for "differential minimum pricing" which will target pubs too.

In the scenario above, 80p per unit would affect Wetherspoons pubs in the UK and 100p would affect many many pubs outside of London and the South East, you can fully expect the same would happen in Ireland.

Claim number 2:
"and only the very cheapest"
This claim displays either crashing ignorance of economic pricing or is a convenient lie.  MUP wouldn't affect only the very cheapest drinks, 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.

Again, this is either a crashing ignorance of business and economics or a convenient lie.

Claim number 3:
"alcohol is a very very price-sensitive commodity, and there's very good modelling from Sheffield about the impact this will have"
Well considering the Sheffield modelling is garbage and produced by incompetents, he's not on solid ground at all here. Because, you see, Sheffield used laughable assumptions which are not based on any evidence whatsoever.
The model assumes that minimum pricing will have more effect on the consumption patterns of heavy drinkers than on moderate drinkers because heavy drinkers are more price-sensitive. This is a convenient belief since it is heavy drinkers who cause and suffer the most alcohol-related harm, but can we really assume that someone with an alcohol dependency is more likely to be deterred by price rises than a more casual consumer? The SAPM model says that they are, and yet there is ample evidence to support the common sense view that heavy drinkers and alcoholics are less price-sensitive than the general population (eg. Gallet, 2007; Wagenaar, 2009). Indeed, research has shown that price elasticity for the heaviest drinkers is “not significantly different from zero” - they will, in other words, purchase alcohol at almost any cost (Purshouse, 2009; p. 76). 
So, who does Stewart believe MUP should be targeted at? During the piece he insists that the purpose is solely to address harmful consumption, but his claim only works if it is directed at all drinkers, heavy or otherwise. Did he give away a secret agenda or is he lying? You decide.

Claim number 4:
"We actually have real world evidence from British Columbia in Canada, we saw from that that if you increase the price of alcohol by 10%, you see a fall in consumption of 4.5% but most importantly you see a reduction in mortality by alcohol related causes by 32% in the first year."
This is a lie.
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.
Claim number 5:
"That's not true [that if you are addicted to alcohol you will buy it whatever the price], because you will be limited by what money you have"
Yes, that financial restriction which has curtailed drug addiction for eternity. Aww bless, perhaps someone should tell him about black markets and drug-related crime?

Claim number 6:
"What we will see is a reduction in the concentration of alcohol in a bottle of wine, and that can only be a good thing"
This is actually as truthful as Stewart gets in the whole piece. Just the thought of wine manufacturers reducing their levels of alcohol - not to just heavy drinkers but to everyone - brings a satisfied smile to his face. It does, however, show him up for being disingenuous when he says that the measure is targeted at harmful drinkers. The alcohol content of drinks is dictated my market pressure - if a wine is unpopular the public won't buy it - so the overwhelmingly moderate-drinking public are obviously quite happy with the range of options currently available. Stewart doesn't like this and wants to interfere to reduce it by force of law ... for everyone.

Claim number 7:
"I don't think we should not introduce legislation because it's not going to work for everybody ... there is going to be no individual law that is going to be able to affect every single harmful drinker"
Yes there is, it's called ad valorem tax, currently applied to alcohol and the preferred option of the EU. Hence why it's the CJEU Advocate General's opinion that MUP is illegal. The presenter puts this very fact to Stewart which leads us to ...

Claim number 8:
"It's a lot easier for the drinks industry to get round those taxes" 
Again, Stewart betrays himself. If targeting harmful drinkers as he claims to be concerned with, isn't it more sensible to try to affect all of them, not just the less well-off? Stewart doesn't seem to care, but is more interested in attacking the drinks industry. He doesn't care that there are better alternatives for 'public health', nor that supermarkets will have their coffers filled by a pointless initiative, just wants to bash the poor and demonise an industry providing popular products. he expands gleefully on this by talking about restricting advertising and availability, which will - of course - not target any particular subset of drinkers, it will affect every drinker.

Claim number 9:
"What we currently have is a public health policy which is driven by the alcohol industry"
I can only assume that Sam had debunked his nonsense so effectively on the show (and here recently too) that he was in desperation mode. As Sam quite rightly says, "we already have some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe, in fact in the world in Ireland; to pretend the industry is setting all the rules here is just not true".

Indeed. It's barking conspiracy theory nuttiness from a Chicken Little bellwipe who seems to have been frustrated that all his dodgy claims are not being taken seriously.

Claim number 10: 
"Currently we have a nanny industry in alcohol who are deciding the pricing, deciding the availability, and deciding exactly how they want to promote alcohol" 
Oh, this is interesting. We've seen this daft argument here recently haven't we folks? In December it was food snobs trying to pretend that industry were the nannies and not hideous people who wish to restrict our choices, now the same flawed stupidity is rolled out by anti-alcohol frother Stewart. As I mentioned at the time.
The problem that nanny statists have - because that is precisely what they are - is that industry really doesn't have to try hard to sell popular products to the public, because they are just that. Popular. Whereas nasty curtain-twitching prohibitionists are not very popular at all! No-one likes a nag, especially when they restrict choice and ban stuff we like by pestering and bullying politicians. 
Of course, if the cult of 'public health' truly believed that people are so easily swayed by a few ads, they would simply do the same themselves and we'd all dutifully fall into line, but they don't. And the reason being? Because they demand regulations, legislation and bans on the basis that - wait for it - education is not effective. No really, they do ... at the same time as pretending that education (adverts) from the [insert industry here] are somehow miraculously compelling! It would be funny if it wasn't so utterly pathetic. 
The upside of all this, of course, is that their attempting to change the meaning of terms like 'nanny' and 'nanny state' simply illustrate how hurtful and damaging the terms are to them.
In truth, the Irish state - like our own - imposes heavy regulations on pricing, availability and marketing of alcohol by way of taxation, licensing and advertising restrictions. Stewart can try to push this laughable sound bite if he likes but it is an absurd and contorted perversion of reality; it won't work; and no matter how much butthurt he feels at being described as a nanny, he is one and will always be thought of in that manner by the public. Sorry, but that's life.

So that's 10 daft claims in one article, with not one of them standing up to proper scrutiny.

The last word must be left to Sam, who summed up the whole not-about-health mendacity and wriggling succinctly.
"Really what Stephen [Stewart] is saying is that he's annoyed that he's not in charge. 
"He's annoyed that the alcohol industry has too much say and he wants doctors to have a say instead. I think that's not right, I think that we should let individuals make the decision for themselves how much they drink and what they drink."
Ain't that the truth!

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