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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 12th December 2011 

With less than two weeks to go until Christmas Day, the party season is getting into full swing so I thought it would be a good time to look at four recent stories related to alcohol.

The first two are reports based on the release of the latest figures for hospital admissions in England. This story was widely covered but I decided to see if I could find any difference in the way the story was handled by looking at how it was dealt with by the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

Oddly, I found that though both the Telegraph and the Guardian had the same figures, 1,173,386 for 2010/11 against 1,056,962 for 2009/10, the Guardian called this a 9% increase whereas the Telegraph, correctly, said it was 11%. I know the Guardian still has a reputation for typing errors but it seems it is also capable of making numerical errors.

There does appear to be a difference between them when it comes to determining to what the 1,173,386 figure refers. The Guardian says it is the number of patients admitted to hospital for alcohol-related problems but for the Telegraph it is ‘admitted to casualty’. The difference is significant. Just over a quarter of people attending an A & E department are admitted to hospital. The one million plus figure seems to be admissions (the NHS is not that clear when it comes to defining its terms) in which case there could be up to 4 million attendances at A & E each year (some admissions, of course, will be direct to wards rather than via A & E). There are something like 15 million A & E attendances each year so a quarter of all cases could be alcohol-related.

I’m sorry that there are so many imprecisions in the above. Part of that is my innate stupidity but it is also the case that figures for the full extent of alcohol-related health problems are not that easy to find.

Where the Guardian and Telegraph agree is that these numbers have doubled since 2002/3.

Both reports then take views from a variety of people as to why this has happened. Increased opening hours and an increase in ‘binge’ drinking are given as reasons and there is the usual, though unhelpful, politicising of the issue with the government blaming the previous Labour administration and the Labour opposition suggesting that the government is too concerned not to harm the business of the drinks industry to take firm action.

Because of the totally artificial divide between alcohol and illegal drugs, no-one seems to be able to take an overall view of the situation regarding the use of psychoactive substances. It is interesting to speculate how many people would have ended up in hospital if they had all used presently illegal substances rather than alcohol to alter their state of consciousness.

Early in 2012, the government is to publish plans for dealing with problem drinking. Only then will we see if it really intends to tackle the poisoning of large sections of the population.

The third report appeared a few days ago and reported data from the retail analysts Nielsen showing that retail sales of alcohol have fallen in Scotland since the beginning of October. Sales of wine are 5% down, spirits 3% and beer 8% lower.

2nd Nov In a previous entry, I wrote about the Scottish government’s desire to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol and how those plans were frustrated in the last parliament. Other measures were, however, approved. These included restrictions on advertising around sales outlets, increased age verification checks and a ban on multi-buy discounting. It is this last measure that is thought to have had the greatest impact.

Though eight weeks is too short a period to say with certainty that the new measures are having an effect, Nielsen is able to say that, in England and Wales during the same period, wine sales fell by 4%, spirits by 1% and beer sales rose by 1%. Given that beer was the product most often featured in multi-buy deals, the difference between an 8% fall and a 1% rise could be a clear indication that the policy is having an effect. We’ll need to wait quite a while to establish if the decrease is maintained.

And the final story came from the Independent and looked at a bar that does everything all city centre bars do, except serve alcohol. The Brink, in Liverpool, offers a range of non-alcoholic drinks and is aiming to be a place the general public will be pleased to visit and not just those recovering from alcohol problems who are at risk of relapsing in they are in premises where alcohol is available.

The Brink opened on 29th September so the story is very much ‘so far, so good’. It would be encouraging if it could demonstrate that it is possible to have a social life that does not depend on the use of psychoactive substances, whether legal or illegal but one doubts if it offers a model that would be welcomed by the majority of the population.