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Thursday, 28 January 2010

This week's dose of neopro distortion and lies

Look, I don't want to keep banging this drum. But the media assault is now a constant bombardment.

Today's (or rather yesterday's) villains are the Daily Telegraph, with the story "Children drinking more than adult safe levels, official figures show." Thanks to Jeff Pickthall for sending me the article and for finding the actual data - he's very bullish about stuff like this.

Nowhere in the Telegraph article does it give you an actual percentage figure for the number of children who are doing what the headline claims they are doing. By any conceivable standards, that's just poor reporting. Incompetently poor. So why a professional journalist would do such a thing?

Before we answer that, it's important to say that the data seems reliable, with one caveat: it's a survey of 11-15 year olds, and there's a pretty huge difference between the attitudes, habits and behaviour of an 11 year-old and those of a 15 year-old. Sure, you’ve got to create your data breaks somewhere, but the Telegraph subhead about “Children as young as eleven are drinking two bottles of wine a week” is pretty disingenuous when you don’t have a breakdown of ages within the group. If 63% of all 11-15 year olds have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, I’m guessing that figure is several times higher for 15 year olds than for 11 year olds. You simply cannot draw the conclusion from the data available that any child as young as eleven is drinking as much as the Telegraph claims. They may well be. But the data as it's presented does NOT say that they are.

(By the way - if it seems tedious that I keep referring to 11-15 year olds, it's because that's the age group of the survey - there's quite a difference between 'children' - which is what the Telegraph are claiming the story is - and 11-15 year olds - the oldest third of all children.)

But whatever, it’s still all under-age drinking, right? Which is of course wrong (because Liam Donaldson said so, without any research or data to back up his personal belief).

So what does the “official data” referred to by the Telegraph actually say? Unsurprisingly, even a cursory look suggests quite a different picture from the one the newspaper paints:
  • The percentage of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk FELL from 55% in 2006 to 52% in 2008
  • The percentage of 11-15 year-olds who have drunk in the last week FELL from 21% in 2006 to 18% in 2008
  • The AVERAGE alcohol consumption for 11-15 year olds who have drunk alcohol is between 13 and 16 units – so not higher than safe limits for adults at all then. And as that's an average of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk (52%), simple maths tells you that the average for ALL 11-15 year olds must be half that - around 7-8 units.
  • Why focus on the North East? Because that’s the region where 11-15 year olds have drunk more than anywhere else. It’s not typical of the country as a whole. 63% of 11-15 year olds have drunk alcohol there, compared with only 39% in London.
  • The Telegraph correctly reports that ‘more than one in four’ 11-15 year olds in the North East have drunk in the last week. It doesn’t report that in London, this figure is only 12%. Everywhere else, it's between the two.
  • In terms of average weekly consumption, girls marginally exceed the safe limit for women in five out of nine regions, by an amount that is within the standard margin of error quoted by statisticians. For example, in West Midlands girls drink an average of 14.2 units a week, with a standard range of error of 1.27, meaning they could be as much as 15.9 or as little as 12.5.
  • In no area of the country do boys drink an average of more than 21 units – the recommended limit for men. The Telegraph headline is therefore factually inaccurate on yet another count. In the body of the article it states where teenage girls drink too much. It doesn't mention the figures for teenage boys because they don't fit with the story the newspaper is fabricating - so let me say once again, IN NO REGION OF THE COUNTRY ARE 11-15 YEAR OLD BOYS DRINKING MORE THAN THE 'SAFE' LIMITS FOR ADULT MEN.
The headline “Children drinking more than adult safe levels” clearly suggests that the typical or average child is doing so. The “official data” emphatically shows that this is NOT the case, and also shows – like all other recent data on the subject – that under-age drinking is declining, something the Telegraph does not see fit to mention at all.

Here is a serious and incredibly well-respected newspaper deliberately distorting NHS data to create a story that is significantly more alarming than the truth. The sub-editors have taken a story the journalist has already distorted, and written a headline and sub-head that is simply not true on several counts.

Why? Do they have their own agenda? Or are they just resorting to cheap, tabloid-style sensationalism? Anyone know?

Beer sales not quite as shit as they have been lately

Every quarter, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) releases a quarterly 'beer barometer' that gives you a snapshot of how beer sales are doing in the UK.

As you're probably aware, UK beer sales have been tanking over the last few years, and this has put the much-criticised BBPA in a difficult position. As the body representing British brewing interests it should be a cheerleader for the industry, actively promoting beer. But increasingly it sounds like a doom-monger, doing more than any other organisation to give the impression that no one is drinking beer or going to the pub any more.

Fortunately, the latest figures - while not exactly positive - are significantly less shit than they have been recently, and this has allowed the BBPA to take a welcome, slightly more upbeat tone.

The headline of the press release is "Beer starts to shake off recession slump". The key figures are:
  • Total beer sales down 3.6% in October to December 2009, the lowest 4th quarter fall since 2006
  • Beer sales for the whole of 2009 fell by 4.2%, compared with 5.5% for 2008
  • Sales in pubs and bars for the final quarter of 09 were down 5% - compared with 9% in 2008
  • Beer was down in supermarkets and shops in the final quarter by 2.1%, compared with 6.4% in 2008
  • However, over the year a a while, off-trade beer sakes were down 3.1% - the largest annual fall since records began in 1978. This at least raises questions about the received wisdom that the main problem facing pubs is cheap beer in supermarkets
  • Based on these figures, despite Alastair "A barman nicked my girlfriend when I was 18 and my entire economic policy is based on extracting a slow and humiliating revenge from an industry I have learned to hate" Darling having raised duty on beer by more than 20 fucking per cent in the last two years, and having done so purely as a revenue raising measure (anti-binge drinking etc was not a consideration), government revenues from beer have in fact fallen by an estimated £258 million. Nice one, Thunderbirds-boy.
So. People are drinking less beer, and it's looking like the recession has been a key cause of that. But as BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds comments, "As the economy moves into recovery, so will the beer and pub sector. In fact, as in previous recessions, it may emerge first and fastest."

But Simmonds also warns “What is certain is that any recovery could be thrown off course and destabilised by Government intervention on tax or regulation. What is equally certain is that any move by Government to increase beer tax further this year would be very damaging and place pubs and jobs at greater risk.”

Come on Alastair, get over it. It was a long time ago. Let her go.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Great Dentist's Chair Hunt - Results

Last week I asked for evidence of the infamous 'dentist's chair' promotion - where one person lies back in a chair while others pour spirits down their necks.

It was quoted in every newspaper and radio news report on the government's introduction of a mandatory code for pubs as being typical of the kind of binge drinking promotion that needs to be stamped out. I've never seen one, and asked if anyone else had spotted one in a UK licensed premises over the last ten years.

We've managed to identify that this activity definitely does happen in Sam Jacks in Newcastle (it just had to be Newcastle, didn't it?). Thanks to Beer Nut and Stringers Beer.

But so far, we've failed to find evidence of it happening in more than one of Britain's 105,000 on-licensed pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants.

And then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from someone who works for one of the UK's largest circulation national newspapers. For obvious reasons I can't reveal that person's identity. But what they have to say speaks volumes about the media and neo-prohibitionism:

"I was asked to find images showing the aforementioned chair for our paper last week. One of the picture researchers spent a couple of hours on the case without finding one single picture of this occurring anywhere in the world, never mind Britain. That search included 13 or 14 commercial picture agencies handling millions of stock images which, I think, shows that this particular form of drinking - disregarding one event involving England footballers almost 15 years ago - is non-existent."

It's good to know that even among the people who are compelled to spread the myth of 'soaring' binge drinking, there are those who realise what a crock of horseshit this whole media-generated moral panic really is.

Friday, 22 January 2010

I love the smell of hot Sarsons at lunchtime.

The best advert in the world, ever. I'm serious.

So I’m Beer Writer of the Year, and now Christmas is out of the way this has started to bring in a few invites that I wasn’t getting this time last year.

Yesterday saw me joining the nice chaps from Marston’s at the 22nd Annual Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Competition, described by the man who introduced proceedings – with a straight face – as the “Oscars of the frying industry” (fellow beer scribe Nigel Huddlestone was also there).

This was a particularly special year for the awards, because 2010 is the 150th birthday of fish and chips, with the general consensus being that the first chippie opened in 1860. As IPA – in its Burtonised incarnation – is almost 190 years old, Old Empire was the official beer of the event.

I love fish and chips. The aroma of malt vinegar evaporating off chips is second only to the bouquet of hoppy IPA in terms of olfactory delight. My dad actually used to own a chip shop, and while my mum worked in it, we never actually ran it – dad just rented it out to Greasy Graham, a massive Barry Sheen fan who had posters of motorbikes around the chippie, always seemed to wrap my chips in page three of The Sun, and made the best proper fishcakes (two slabs of potato sandwiching fish off-cuts, battered and deep-fried) in the entire world. In all these respects, he had a profound influence on an 8-year-old future beer writer. Apart from the stuff about bikes.

Fish and chips have a dirty, decadent, delicious shiny-fingered guilt that rivals any junk food you can think of. And yet – it says here – as a meal it contains less salt, a third less calories and over 40 per cent less fat than other takeaways. Truly, this is the food of the gods.

So it was a profound honour to be at the Frying Oscars, even if it spelled disaster for the January detox - or so I thought.

I missed the champagne reception, where beer-battered goujons of fish and prawns were matched with Old Empire, and discussions were had about future plans to explore the merits of different types of beer batter and different matches of IPA with battered fish. I didn’t mean to, but by doing so I kind of missed the bit that made it relevant to this blog. But I thought you’d like to hear about the rest anyway.

Into lunch then, and first, a profound shock.

What kind of meal do you think they would serve at the Annual Fish and Chip Awards, in the year of the fish and chip shop’s 150th anniversary? Go on, have a guess.

Yes, that’s right: scallops wrapped in pancetta, followed by pan-fried cod fillet with a red pesto sauce, served on a bed of asparagus with some potatoes and carrots. It was like going to a beer festival and being told they only served wine. Christ, this was actually detox-friendly! Shaken, confused, traumatised, I sat down to hear what everyone had to say.

The main sponsor of the awards was Seafish – “the authority on seafood”. Their chairman Charles Howeson welcomed us all and told us that despite the recession chippies were having a good year. He clearly had a chip on his shoulder about the health lobby (God, I’m so sorry about that one) but assured us that in 2009 sales of fish and chips were up 15%.

He then handed over to celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, who told us that the English had nicked fish and chips from Italy, before going on to gently insult most of the regional awards winners and pull funny faces behind the backs of the sponsor’s representatives who presented the awards.

My attention began to wander and I scrutinized the programme. I was disappointed to see that in 22 years, only once has the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year been awarded to an establishment with a crap pun in the name: ‘Our Plaice’ in West Hagley, West Midlands in 2004, and it’s not even that good. No ‘In Cod we Trust’. No ‘A Fish called Rhondda’. No ‘A Salt and Battered’. If these kinds of plaices – sorry, places – don’t make good enough fish and chips, it’s high time there was a new category that’s just about the best name.

Further on in the programme, I was less enchanted by some of the sponsors, and their descriptions of what they do. Blakemans describes itself as ‘The Supreme Sausage’, and goes on to claim it is “one of Europe’s leading manufacturers of sausage and meat products.” Not “sausages and meat”. But “sausage and meat products.” Amazing how one word can change the appetite appeal so much.

Duncrue Food Processors – strapline, “Irish beef dripping” – is a company that makes – you guessed it – beef dripping from ‘caul, kidney and body fat from E.C. and Department of Agriculture approved plants’, and according to their website they recently invested in a deodourising plant. There are some things about fish and chips we just don’t need to know I guess, but it’s fascinating to get a brief, deeper glimpse into any industry you don’t normally have that much to do with.

There were 10,000 entries for the ‘Favourite Frier’ category (Sponsored by Sun Talk, the online Currant Bun radio station) and a hundred of Britain’s 10,500 chippies were shortlisted for the overall prize of Britain’s best fish and chip shop 2009. The eventual winner was The Atlantic Fast Food chippy in Coatbridge, Glasgow, which had entered for the first time. Congratulations to them.

It’s nice to see that everyone else takes what they do as seriously as we beer writers, and it was pleasantly strange to be able to sit through an awards ceremony with a complete absence of anxiety, jealousy and self-doubt. I’m sure that by the time December 2010 is approaching, I’ll be willing to trade my place as Chairman of the Beer Writing Awards this year for a chance to be one of the people who helps get that shortlist of 100 chippies down to one.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A tiny example of why the fight against the neopros is not futile

Look, that change of subject is coming soon I promise - I've got an IPA and fish and chip matching lunch later today - but I've got to tell you this.

Yesterday I had an off-the-record email chat with the BBC News website. I can't go into details but I can confirm that their misleading reporting of "alcohol kills 40,000 a year" and "drinking costs the economy £55bn a year" has been amended in existing articles and will not appear as 'fact' again unless a lot more proof emerges that they are, in fact, facts. (The death figure is now quoted as an 'estimate' and the £55bn figure has been replaced.)

Please do challenge distorted reporting where you see it - I've gone to such great lengths to put all this data at your disposal so you can do this with authority if you feel the urge.

Some media outlets do have an anti-drink agenda of their own.

Others just print what they think will sell newspapers.

But many simply have no reason to disbelieve data sent to them from a supposedly reliable source, and have neither the time nor the space to mount their own thorough analysis.

As with when the Mail suddenly cut many of the false statements from a piece last year, our feedback can make a difference - to online news at least.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Great Dentist's Chair Hunt

BLTP raises an interesting point on my last post:

"Just been listening to Today and they mentioned "dentist chair" binge drinking, has anyone ever seen one of these? The famous (in 1996) Gazza incident happened abroad didn't it? And yet this is talked about as if it's daily widespread."

I've never seen one. I just did a Google image search and can't find a single picture of one.

If anyone can send me documentary proof of such a promotion happening anywhere in the UK in the last ten years, you get a free copy of my book and a copy of the HSC Report.

Answering the neo-prohibitionists - a series disclaimer

I'm sure even the most ardent fans of my neopro myth-busting posts would agree it's time we talked about something else. But just before I leave the topic for a while, I need to be candid and restate my disclaimers around this whole area.

I've had a few comments over the past week or so suggesting that I'm riding this too hard, that I'm perhaps in denial about the real health and social perils of alcohol abuse. These comments come from people like Alan and Matt, people I like and really respect, so they deserve a full and frank response.

I can assure you that I'm not in denial about alcohol abuse. It has touched my life, and I'm keenly aware of the effect it has on others. I don't for one second seek to deny that there is a problem that affects a significant number of people. I feel deeply ambivalent about putting the following out into the blogosphere, but I feel I need to help explain where I'm coming from.

Two points:

Firstly, a close friend of mine trained as a doctor, and about fifteen years ago was working regular Friday night shifts in A&E. They soon realised they were stitching the same people back together every week. This led to feelings of futility and despair, which in turn led to clinical depression, which in turn led to a serious suicide attempt. Fortunately, that person survived, but after a spell in an institution they gave up the career they had trained seven years for. The person is OK now.

Secondly, I grew up very close to someone who is a chronic alcoholic. That person is still in my life today. I've had therapy to deal with how their behaviour has affected me, with the guilt I feel every time that person gets so drunk they can't speak and piss themselves, to come to terms with the fact that it's their decision, and there is nothing I can do to affect it. I have witnessed at close hand how alcohol can destroy lives, and I fucking hate it - it's destroyed their life; it's scarred mine. This is why I'm vigilant about my own drinking.

So why am I here, criticising people who seemingly only want to prevent tragedies like these happening?

Several reasons.

Firstly, because having witnessed it close up, I know that when people step up to fight alcohol abuse, they go for the wrong targets. People don't drink harmfully because alcohol is there, or because it's cheap, or because it's advertised. Restricting the availability of alcohol won't help alcoholics. These people live for alcohol - it's the only thing they care about. Make it expensive and they'll go without food, sell their house, Christ, they'd sell their fucking kids for a drink. Prohibit it altogether and they'll drink meths, or nail varnish remover, or after shave.

Alcoholics drink not because it's there, or cheap, or tastes nice, but because they have deeper trauma and/or unhappiness in their lives. Even if you were studying this at GCSE level, if you look at it scientifically, if availability/pricing/advertising of booze caused problem drinking, then everyone exposed to it would be more likely to problem drink. But most people in theUK are drinking less. A minority are drinking to harmful levels. And as far as I can tell, no one is studying that minority in detail and asking what it is about them that makes them different from the majority.

It's easy to blame the availability of booze. And it is shameful that problem drinkers are not being researched in a way that can highlight what it is that's different about them that makes them more likely to problem drink.

People drink to excess because they are unhappy, because they feel empty inside, because they are lonely, because they are stressed, because they have shit jobs being bullied in call centres and alcoholic oblivion is the only escape they can see. Why is no one helping them? Because it's a bit more complicated than just blaming drink, that's why.

Secondly, I'm doing this because for the vast majority of people, drink is an innocent pleasure with minimal health risks beyond a few extra pounds or the odd hangover. My father died of smoking-related lung cancer when he was 58 and I was 27. I've read the science, and I know that there is a direct linear relationship between smoking and ill health - every single cigarette you smoke causes you damage. Drink is not the same. There are healthy levels of alcohol consumption.

My close quarters witnessing of the destruction alcoholism can cause makes me more keenly aware of the benefits of moderate consumption, and the stark difference between the two. So it makes me very angry indeed when someone who doesn't know what they're talking about tars all habitual drinkers with the same brush. And even angrier when newspapers distort the facts even further for nothing more than a sensationalist story.

Thirdly - quite simply, because it needs doing. A quick review of press stories about alcohol over the last week alone will show you how drinking is being demonised and made socially unacceptable. It's based on lies and distortions. The figures say the problem is not getting any worse - if anything, the situation is improving. No one in the media seems to want to report this truth. No one questions press releases from avowedly anti-drink organisations. My blog posts might seem excessive if you've been staying tuned over the last week or so, but they amount to a fart in the face of a hurricane compared to the anti-drink propaganda that's out there every single day.

In summary then - I know the ill effects of alcohol abuse as well as anyone, and care about them as much as anyone. I'll never deny that there's a problem, and am not seeking to do so on this blog.

But if that problem is going to be dealt with effectively, it has to be understood properly. I think the neopros are acting against the interests of the majority of drinkers. But worse, because they are approaching the problem over-simplistically, wilfully distorting the evidence, and confusing personal beliefs with real health issues, I don't think their antics will do anything to help the people who really need helping. And that is just shameful.

That's why I'm doing this.

And I promise my next post will be about Brew Dog or IPA or hops or something.

Answering the neo-prohibitionists, 10 of 10: “Binge drinking has been made worse by 24 hour licensing"

It’s been a along haul over the last week or so – about 12,000 words. So if you’re still reading – thank you! Normal bipolar service between chatty and ranty will resume from now on.

This last one is light on stats. We covered most of the major debunking in posts 1-7, really. But I saved this topic till last because it’s one I care about very strongly, and get quite angry over.

And so does the HSC – their language around this topic becomes less objective, more passionate – and that just makes me even angrier. The fact that everyone gets irrational over the issue means debate over it exposes everything we’ve talked about so far in one neo-prohibitionist nutshell.

A bit of background

Say what you like about the Labour Government and its nannying tendencies, but it needs to be pointed that Parliament is not the same thing as Government, and the HSC report is a parliamentary report, not a governmental one.

Before the Licensing Act of 2003, UK licensing laws were a product of wartime restrictions to prevent munitions workers getting pissed and not turning up to work. Society has changed just a tad since 1918 but licensing laws had not. The spirit behind the Act was to liberalise licensing restrictions for the benefit of everyone, and at the same time crack down on drunken anti-social behaviour, and alcohol abuse generally.

Leaving aside the practicalities of implementation, that to me sounds like an extraordinarily enlightened plan – relaxing restrictions on the innocent many, coming down harder on the guilty few. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s a strategy that has worked very well in Australia – a country with similar issues around drink to the UK.

The Act was implemented in 2005 – with the introduction of :

  • Greater flexibility of licensing hours (with the theoretical possibility of an establishment being able to sell alcohol 24 hours a day)
  • the transfer of licensing powers to local authorities (a decision that in principle is hailed even by the HSC and its supporters)

My view on liberalised licensing

This is not scientific, merely observational. Writing Three Sheets to the Wind, I visited 13 countries. Twelve of them had more relaxed licensing regimes than the UK did, and seemed to have more a relaxed drinking culture too. In the one country I visited that was more restricted than Britain (Sweden) I saw drunken behaviour at the border with Denmark that would make Nottingham on a Friday night look like Sunday afternoon tea round at Liam Donaldson’s house.

As I say, not scientific, quite possibly correlation rather than causation, but certainly consistent – I could walk into a bar in Belgium at 2am and be served an 8% beer, and everyone in there was chatting pleasantly. On a Friday night out in Madrid that ended at 3am, the only drunk people we saw were an English hen party.

Much has been made of the comparison between Britain and ‘continental Europe’, but it wasn’t confined to those countries: I walked into an Irish pub just off Times Square at half past midnight and was served a beer in a pleasant atmosphere.

And then there’s Australia, a country that shares much of the UK’s genetic make-up as well as its fondness for drink. For much of the 20th century, it endured pubs closing at 6pm and the ‘six o' clock swill’, when people drank as fast as they could from when they got out of work until they were thrown out of the pub, and spent the rest of the evening puking, pissing and fighting in the streets.

Now Australia has a licensing system whereby pubs can nominate any 2-hour period in 24 when they close, and can open the rest of the day round. They also have effective campaigns against drunk driving, and strictly enforced laws about not serving people who are already drunk. Pubs close when business dries up, and people go home on a night when they feel like it, not when the pubs shut. Anything resembling the six o' clock swill, which used to happen in every town, every night, is extremely rare.

At the very least, this all suggests there is no direct causal link whatsoever between liberalized licensing laws and binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. At best, it does suggest relaxed licensing leads to relaxed drinking – and Prof. Dwight Heath of Brown University in the US has research far more robust than my whistle-stop global tour which suggests this is true.

So four-and-a-bit years after the introduction of liberalized licensing laws un the UK, how is it doing?

The HSC and media view on liberalised licensing

I’m taking issue with one paragraph from the report summary:

“The DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] has shown extraordinary naivety in believing the Licensing Act 2003 would bring about ‘civilised cafe culture’. In addition, the Act has failed to enable the local population to exercise adequate control of a licensing and enforcement regime which has been too feeble to deal with the problems it has faced.”

The Select Committee Report

The Guardian (8/1/09) in turn refers to “the failure of the government's strategy to tackle problem of drink-related violence and deaths”, quotes the HSC report as saying the government response to the ‘rise’ in binge drinking as ranging from “the non-existent to the ineffectual”, and takes as a matter of fact “the failure of the government's strategy to tackle the escalating problems of drink-related violence and deaths”.

On what basis? Well, let’s look at the evidence.

How have things changed since 2005?

  • As the HSC report tell us itself, late nights in centres, “the overall volume of crime and disorder had with local variations remained stable”
  • Contrary to what the Daily Mail tells us, “pubs stayed open on average only an extra 27 minutes”, and as the 9th post in this series points out, only a tiny fraction of pubs have 24 hour licences
  • As the first post points in this series out, alcohol consumption has declined. It’s declined even more rapidly in the on-trade:
  • The number of pubs has declined steeply:

  • As the second post points out, binge drinking is either stable or declining, so far as we can tell from the data.
  • As the third post points out, the number of hazardous drinkers is static or declining, so far as we can tell from the data, and the key ‘problem group’ of drinkers – 16-24 year old males – shows an in arguable decline.
  • As the sixth post points out, alcohol relate arrests, cautions and convictions are falling
  • As the eighth post points out, underage drinking is falling
  • Casualties from alcohol-related road accidents have continues to fall:

  • Awareness of units

    With reference to current awareness campaigns about the dangers of alcohol, the Report states “Unfortunately, these campaigns are poorly funded and ineffective at conveying key messages.”

    The Select Committee provides no hard data to back up this claim – I’m certain the advertising agencies who created the campaigns have detailed research on this, but of course the HSC doesn’t listen to advertising agencies.

    The nearest proxy I’ve been able to find in terms of readily available data is stuff on unit awareness. The percentage of people who are aware of alcohol units is high and consistent, and the percentage who have seen alcohol unit labeling is growing:

    Is seeing it the same as understanding it? Not at all. But here’s some more data that shows more people are aware of how many units they are drinking:

    Cafes versus pubs

    The government was guilty of nothing more than a really bad PR spin when they kept referring to a ‘continental style café culture’ on British streets as a result of the act. That such a culture has failed to appear is not down to a failure of licensing reform: it’s down to the fact that we don’t have any continental style cafes. We don’t have town squares where you can sit outside and watch the world go past. We have French style bistros, but they’re more restaurants and they close at 10pm like they always did. The British don’t do cafes; we do pubs.

    So what’s happened in the pub? Again, on personal experience only, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Our own ‘eleven o’clock swill’ has dissipated, and you don’t see people speed drinking as last orders approaches because if you want to carry on drinking, you can.

    This is just personal observation of what it’s like inside a pub, but the HSC report uses a great deal of personal observation (but only from people it already agrees with) to draw its conclusions. As I’ve been inside a pub on a Friday night quite regularly since 2005, and they clearly haven’t, I’d argue that in this instance alone my personal observation is more valid than theirs.

    One of the main aims of licensing reform was to spread the incredible congestion and resultant tension in town centres when everyone was thrown out of the pub together at 11.15. The police confirm that, although they have to patrol the streets for longer, alcohol related problems have dispersed through the night, and are less extreme at this critical time.

    Critics point out that problems have increased dramatically between 3am and 6am. Yes, but that’s because there are now some people on the streets at that time, whereas there used to be no one on the streets at that time. It’s increased form a very small base.


    All the evidence above suggests that Britain’s drink problem – while still undeniable and in need of addressing – is either stable or declining. It takes years to effect a cultural and habitual change around drinking. Nevertheless, since the introduction of relaxed licensing laws (and the commensurate crackdown on problem drinking by police) every useful measure suggests our relationship with alcohol is becoming marginally less problematic.

    This may be correlation, it may be causation. But which ever one it is, there are no grounds whatsoever to refer to the government’s strategy to tackle alcohol-related problems as “naïve”, a “failure”, “non-existent” or “ineffectual”.

    To do so implies the authors of the report have been ingesting something far more potent than booze. And yet their warped, hallucinogenic view has become fact in the British media.

    Sunday, 17 January 2010

    More hilarity with statistics

    So according to our neoprohibitionist friends at BBC news, the Scots drink 46 bottles of vodka a year, each.

    It's a shocking statistic - an average of almost a bottle of vodka a week for every single person aged over 18. But is it as bad as it sounds?

    I've checked the calculation - 12 litres of pure alcohol per person - the level of sales from which this figure is derived = 40 x 750ml bottles of alcohol at 40% - not 46 bottles then, but 40. They also claim this is the equivalent of 537 pints of beer or 130 bottles of wine. I did my own calculation based on 4% beer and 12.5% wine and got the same figure, so I'm obviously doing my calculations the same way they are. I checked all leading brands of vodka and they're 40% ABV. So the people working out this figure are either pretending vodka is less strong than we all think it is, in order to deliberately bump up the number of bottles, or they've got their sums wrong. If they're going to alarm us like this, you'd think they could at least get their fucking maths right.

    40 bottles a year still sounds like a lot though. And this time, I have no figures to contradict what's being said here, but let's look at it more closely from a few different angles:
    • If it was as bad as it is being made to sound, Scotland wouldn't function as a country. It gives the impression that every adult is a harmful drinker. And while Scotland does have issues with drink, the country is not collapsing.
    • The BBC report claims that this figure is the equivalent to every adult drinking an average of 26 units of alcohol a week. Suddenly, that doesn't sound quite as bad. But I checked this calculation too - 40 x 750ml bottles of 40% ABV liquid = a round 1200 units of alcohol a year. Divided by 52 weeks, that actually comes to 23.1 units a week - not 26 as is claimed in the piece. The 537 pints of 4% beer gives you an average of 23.5 units a week, and the 130 bottles of 12.5% wine gives you a weekly 23.25. So once again, the people making the calculations can't use a fucking calculator properly. An average of 23.1 units a week for every adult? OK, it's still over government guidelines, but not by much. As an average it does mean many people a drinking quite a bit more than they should, but not close to harmful levels. Oh and hang on...
    • These figures are based on alcohol sold in Scotland - just over 50 million litres last year. What is Scotland famous for? Vodka? No, whisky. So why is the headline about vodka? Why does it not say 'Scots drink 40 bottles of whisky each every year'? Why not? Because if it were, you might make the link between alcohol sales in Scotland and tourism. Tourism is worth £4.2 billion to the Scottish economy, employing 8% of the total workforce. And whisky is a massive part of that. One million foreign tourists visit Scotch whisky distilleries every year, spending a total of £25 million - and rising (source: ScotlandWhisky). I can't make the calculations, but I'm betting a big chunk of that £25 million is spent on bottles of whisky. And that's just what these tourists are spending on distillery tours - what else are they spending in bars, pubs and restaurants on alcohol, while on their holidays? And total annual tourist numbers to Scotland come in at 2.5 million - and rising (source: Scottish government). It's incredible that two in five tourists come to Scotland to visit distilleries, but a huge chunk of those who don't visit distilleries still drink. Whatever their total consumption it's going to account for a sizeable chunk of the 50 million litres of pure alcohol sold in Scotland every year. But every single dram those 2.5 million tourists drink, every single bottle the 1 million distillery visitors buy at the end of their tours, is being included in the figure for what the indigenous Scottish population puts away. In the piece, rising alcohol consumption in Scotland is blamed on cheap prices - the fact that tourism is increasing year on year is not considered.
    So, another non-story then.

    Saturday, 16 January 2010

    Charting new reserves of willpower

    Me. Yesterday.

    One of the things that angers me most about this month's fresh assault from the neopros is the timing of it. In January loads of people give up booze for a month, they're thinking about how much they drink (even Glyn at the Rake is scaring himself silly about this) so let's hit people while they're vulnerable and scare them.

    What makes me angry about this is that it misses the point - heavy drinkers such as me and The Beer Widow do occasionally like to prove to ourselves that we don't have a drink problem, and whatever your views on units etc. no one can argue that it does your body good to lay off the sauce for a while. Via the twisted logic of the neopros, the very fact that we feel the need to do this - to plan a month where we don't drink and prove to ourselves that we can go without - is proof that we do have a problem. You just can't win with these guys. It's like saying that if someone goes on a diet and loses weight, this proves they are still fat.

    Two weeks in, I'm 9lbs lighter and feeling great (that's not just off the beer - it's also a diet consisting mainly of seeds, vegetables, pulses and owl pellets). But for the record, I have had no cravings - either physical or psychological - for alcohol. I haven't had that naggy, itchy feeling when you think, "Ooh, I could really do with a drink." Not once. Not even when I've been quite stressed - and when I do drink too much, it's usually stress related. To me, rather than proving I have a drink problem, this proves I don't have one. I'm sure thousands of other people are feeling the same way right now. And that's one big reason why I'm so angry about the timing of this neopro assault.

    But I am missing beer. I'm missing the taste and smell of it. I'm missing going down to the cellar and looking along the rows of bottles and not letting myself think about it too hard, but just letting my appetite or my subconscious decide what's going to go best with whatever's bubbling away on the hob. I'm missing leaning on the bar at the White Hart while my pint of Tribute, three quarters poured, settles a little while the smiling barperson goes off and gets the Beer Widow's half of Leffe. I'm missing the wet half-moons on the varnished table top. I'm missing going down the the Rake and the slight lift in the stomach and tightening of the throat that betray my excitement the millisecond before I look along the bar and see what's on draught.

    Last night was my biggest test yet. One of the agencies I do some work for (the guys who designed the new M&S range) were having a belated Christmas party. I'm currently helping them out a bit on an exciting project around speciality beer, and they asked me to do a beer tasting session for them before the party proper got under way.

    When I agreed to do this, I thought well, I'll have one night off. That won't do any harm. And it wouldn't have. But then as the event drew closer, I thought, I wonder if I could actually do this without drinking? Do I have the willpower? Can I do a good event? Why not?

    The audience was mainly beer novices, so I chose the theme "So you think you know beer". The intention was to challenge the simple 'cold fizzy lager versus warm, flat ale' misconception that many people still have about beer. So I lined up, in order, the following:
    • Zatec lager - a lager that tastes like lager, an uncompromised expression of a true pilsner
    • Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted - the same colour as the Zatec, but much more body and aroma despite being 4.2% to Zatec's 5%, to get them thinking about the difference between ale and lager
    • Worthington White Shield - to talk about bottle conditioning, and because it is one of the five greatest beers in the world
    • Goose Island IPA - to talk about hops, and because it's also one of the five greatest beers in the world
    • Dogfish Head Midas touch - to talk about the history and evolution of beer, and broaden the parameters of what it might be
    • Brooklyn Dark Chocolate Stout - to talk about malt, and to open up a hint of 'extreme' beer (even though it's not that extreme by most aficionado's standards, it's pretty out there for your average drinker)
    • Harviestoun Ola Dubh 40 Year Old - to show the innovation that's happening and to leave conventional notions of what beer is and tastes like as a dwindling speck in the rear view mirror
    • Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus - to fuck with their heads and make them cry
    I adore each and every one of these beers. With each one, I poured it, talked about it, held it to the light, swirled it, sniffed it, talked about the aroma, asked what flavours people were getting, stuck my nose deep into the glass... and then put it down on the table. I didn't take a single sip.

    I proved to myself that I can appreciate beer and be in close contact with it without drinking it.

    And given that the audience enjoyed it, I proved I can give an entertaining beer tasting without drinking it.

    So why did I feel like such a fucking idiot afterwards? Why did I feel like a bloke who's found a wallet with £1000 quid in it and handed it in at a police station - knowing you've done the right thing, but feeling slightly foolish for having done so?

    And then I woke up this morning, feeling fantastic, and discovered I've lost 1lb more.

    I'm halfway through the detox, and have no intention of repeating last night's self-denial when I'm back on the sauce. But long term I am going to cut out the three bottles in front of the telly on a rainy Monday night, the three pints in the pub after work just because it's on the way home, the pint of Kronenbourg in a not very nice pub in the middle of town because I've got half an hour to wait before my meeting and I just might as well have one. I'll do all of these occasionally, but not all the time.

    If I do that, I'll never again have to do something as stupid as pouring away the eight beers listed above, untouched, untasted.

    Thursday, 14 January 2010

    Answering the neo-prohibitionists, 9 of 10: "Pubs are a problem"

    This post is a little different from the others, in that the HSC report doesn’t really attack pubs implicitly. In fact, it suggests that minimum pricing would help traditional pubs at the expense of off-licences. Some commenters have suggested this is a cynical ploy to divide the pro-drinks lobby. I won’t give my thoughts on that here.

    But while the HSC lets pubs off the hook on the surface, there are two reasons to keep defence of pubs to the fore.

    The first is that the HSC report recommends the urgent introduction of the Mandatory Code for pubs. As well as suggesting bans on happy hour type promotions – which many responsible drinkers would at least sympathise with – it contains more worrying proposals such as the introduction of CCTV in pubs, and a broader role for police in pubs. At best, the Code means more red tape for licensees and a huge administrative cost to implement, when many landlords are already on their knees. At worst, it could fundamentally change the unique character of the British pub. Further ideas that have been discussed (though to the best of my knowledge, not seriously proposed) include:

    • Limiting live music in pubs to be no louder than the volume of a hairdryer
    • Having two police officers stationed inside the door of busy pubs – with the publican having to pay for them
    • Insisting that every drink must be poured in a legally approved measure so people know exactly how much they’ve had to drink – which would make it illegal to top up a new glass from an open bottle, for example.
    • Insisting that some pubs use plastic glasses at all times

    The anti-alcohol lobby will continue to suggest proposals such as these in its fight against the pub, so its important that we defend the pub against them.

    Secondly, the broader anti-alcohol lobby regularly has pubs in its sights. Most pictures illustrating binge drinking stories in newspapers and illustrated with pictures of pubs. Attacks on “24 hour drinking” invariably suggest that pubs are open all night.

    While most alcohol consumed in the UK is now bought off-trade, the pub is still the symbolic home of the drinker. Eric Ilsley MP told the SIBA conference in 2008 about a Radio 4 story focusing on children as young as ten being admitted to hospital with drink related problems.When the interviewer asked the health expert what could be done about this, the ‘expert’ replied, “Well, we’ve got to get tougher with pubs,” as if children of ten were happily nursing pints at the bar.

    So while some progress is being in advancing the image of the pub, it is still a scapegoat in the eyes of right-wing tabloids at least. This series of posts is intended to provide ammunition to combat all the usual attacks on the beer and pub industry – not just the HSC report – so I wanted to include the following data here.

    24 hour licensing – the truth

    “24 hour drinking” is a myth that has become true by simple repetition in the media. So here are the facts.

    The number of 24 hour licences issued so far is 7178. Of these, 22% have gone to supermarkets, the rest 5600 – to the on-trade. There are 105,000 on-licensed premises in the UK, which means that 5.3% of UK on-licences have 24 hour licences.

    The vast majority of these have gone to hotel bars, chiefly top clear up the ambiguity around staying open late to serve hotel guests. Only 12% - or 861 licences – have gone to pubs, clubs and bars. A tiny, fraction of pubs have 24 hour licences.

    The truth of “24 hour drinking is, according to a review by the Department of Health, that pubs on average stay open a while 27 minutes later than they used to.

    The image painted in the media of pubs servoing drunks around the clock is a complete fabrication.

    On versus off-trade

    Not all of you are going to like or agree with this, but it’s a point that has to be made – and it’s a point on which I agree with the HSC!

    I’m not arguing that supermarkets are entirely to blame for the drinking problem that does exist in the UK (whatever the true size of that problem may be). And I’m not necessarily arguing in favour of minimum pricing.

    But I would argue that it is wrong to sell alcohol below cost price. Several bloggers have been angered by the whole “alcohol cheaper than water” claim, but I’ve seen the documents that show this has on occasion happened.

    And whatever your views on that, it’s simple to calculate the total VAT and Customs & Excise duty on a given container of alcohol. It is common to see booze sold in supermarkets for less than this amount. I’m sorry, but selling below cost price strikes me as irresponsible.

    But the main point I want to make is one of principle, not price. In their evidence to the HSC, representatives of big supermarket chains repeated the line they always used when questioned on the ethics of selling alcohol below cost price:

    Sandra Gidley: Why do supermarkets sell alcohol at below the cost of the duty that is on it from time to time as a loss leader?

    Mr Kelly: As we said earlier, we are in a highly competitive market competing for customers and we will sell sometimes loss leaders across a whole range.

    Sandra Gidley: Do you think it is right to do this with alcohol though? Do you think it is socially responsible?

    Mr Kelly: We are in a highly competitive market.

    I’m bringing this up, remember, to defend pubs. Supermarkets are doing remarkably well, taking an ever-increasing share of British total expenditure. Pubs are closing at a rate of 52 a week. If anyone knows what a competitive market is, it’s the publican.

    But just imagine if a Publican, or even a big PubCo, did a promotion of shots for 30p and when questioned on the morality of it, shrugged and replied, “We’re in a competitive market.” They simply wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. But supermarkets are.

    I’m not saying the carnage in the pub market is all the supermarket’s fault. I’m unhappy at having to write something potentially divisive in this series of posts. But alcohol is an intoxicating drug and I believe anyone who sells it has a duty of care to their customers to recognise that and act upon it. Supermarkets do not. Pubs – not all pubs, but the vast majority – do recognise this.

    So in summary, there are two points to this post really:

    • Pubs are responsible retailers of alcohol and are often unfairly demonized. The myth of “24 hour drinking” is a classic example of this.
    • Supermarkets need to publicly acknowledge the ethical responsibility that comes with selling alcohol. By simply justifying their behaviour with regard to price they are failing to do so. This does a grave disservice to the entire alcohol industry, and opens everyone up for attack.

    I’m all for working together and uniting the industry with one voice, as these posts hopefully suggest. But this requires an acknowledgement of the responsibilities the industry has.