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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 2nd February 2012

Sometimes, a number catches my eye and I think I should look at it a bit closer to see if it means what it seems to mean. It happened when I read;

‘Another aspect of reducing demand is to make sure that the drugs information we communicate in terms of the risks and awareness is up to date and as effective as possible. You might not have noticed, although hopefully our target audience did, but Frank was relaunched in October. The statistics on Frank in terms of awareness are very strong; 86% of 11-18 year olds, Frank’s target audience, know about the service and over 80% say they trust it to give reliable information.’

This was part of a speech given by Gus Jaspert, head of drugs and alcohol in the Home Office, to the Westminster Social Policy Forum as part of ‘The future for drugs policy – treatment, rehabilitation, commissioning and education 13th December 2011’. Following that link will show the agenda for the whole meeting but you’ll be asked to spend £95 if you want to see the actual transcripts. Luckily for my bank balance the full speech was reproduced by Addiction Today.

It was the figures for awareness of the ‘Frank’ website that interested me so I set out to do see if I could do some arithmetic.

The CIA World Factbook estimates the total UK population at 62,698,362 in July 2011. Obviously, the population was not that for the whole of July 2011 so giving a figure to that degree of accuracy is wrong but I settled on a range of 62-63 million.

The next thing to find out is how many of those are aged 11-18. I found a graphic mapping the population of the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2008 that included a figure of 9.9% as the England wide population in the 11-18 age group.

Straightaway, there is the first fiddle factor. The CIA number is for the UK but that four year old percentage is England only. I’d expect somewhere like Northern Ireland to have a higher percentage of young people but I don’t know what the situation would be in Scotland and Wales. In very round terms, Scotland has 5 million people, Wales 3 million and Northern Ireland 2 million. If the percentage of 11-18 year olds for those three areas is in the range 5-15% and England has 10% then the range for the UK is 9-11%.

That gives a UK-wide population of 11-18 year olds of 5.7-6.7 million and suggests Gus Jaspert’s 86% awareness of ‘Frank’ is 4.9-5.8 million young people with 4.6-5.4 million who ‘say they trust it to give reliable information.’

The next part of this exercise would have been very difficult were it not for someone called Tom Steinberg and the ‘WhatDoTheyKnow’ website run by mysociety.org. In May 2008, Mr Steinberg made a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office about talktofrank.com (‘Frank’ was originally called ‘Talk to Frank’ and retains that domain name) asking for the number of unique visitors to the site per month and in total since its launch.

The Home Office reply, in June 2008, said that there were 170,207 visitors per month on average and there had been 10,212,432 visitors since launch. A news archive search suggests the site launched late in May 2003. The end of May 2003 to May 2008 is 60 months.

A quick division shows that the 170,207 average visitors per month is just that because it is one sixtieth of the 10,212,432 visitors. It is impossible to know how traffic had fluctuated over the five years; did it start in a rush following the widespread publicity before tailing off or has it grown a bigger audience as word of mouth spread? It’s another example of the care you need when making FOI requests because the average tells us nothing new. Public bodies are extremely literal when it comes to reading FOI requests and never volunteer the information the questioner clearly meant to ask for but failed to specifically ask for by their choice of words.

So, what we have is 10 million total visits over 5 years: 2 million visits per year. But that is a simple average for five years ending in May 2008 and it is impossible to gauge how traffic may have changed since then. I’m going to take a stab and say that the 2 million a year average could be 4 million now. I think you’ll agree that is likely to be an over-estimate.

That, of course, is 4 million total visitors and only a proportion of those will be in the 11-18 age group. The site has a page of advice for parents and carers so it is not solely aimed at the young and there is no way to determine the age split of the total. But, even if every visitor fell into the 11-18 age group and even if current visitors are double the historic average, that still falls short of Mr Jaspert’s 4.9-5.8 million ‘awareness’ figure and his 4.6-5.4 million who trust the advice from ‘Frank’.

The problem with Mr Jaspert’s numbers is that he gives no explanation of how they came about. Are they based on a survey of a representative sample of 11 – 18 year olds? Was the survey done to test the effectiveness of a drug education programme that included mention of ‘Talk to Frank’? The numbers he gives seem to be extremely high but, as often happens, they get trotted out in the hope they’ll be accepted without question.

There’s an episode of ‘The West Wing’, and I’m not enough of a groupie to be able to quote season and episode number off the top of my head, where Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, walks around muttering two numbers from a recent survey. Towards the end of the episode he explains them (these are not the precise numbers; see above about my limited nerdiness for West Wing detail). ‘The survey says that 57% think foreign aid spending is too high and 48% say it should be cut. That means 9% think we’re spending too much but don’t care. How can that be possible?’

According to Mr Jaspert, 80% of 11 – 18 year olds think Frank, the government’s anti-drugs advice service, gives ‘reliable information’ but surveys suggest that 30% of that age group have used an illegal drug. That infers that 10% use drugs in spite of agreeing with what ‘Frank’ says about them.

It just strikes me as another example of the abdication of responsibility that is inherent in a prohibition system. ‘We run a reliable information service and can produce figures to show that the target audience accepts that. It’s not our fault if children still use these substances.’