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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 13th March 2013

Someone is spinning but I’m not sure who or in which direction. Towards the end of 2012, the government announced its plans to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol in England and Wales. A twelve week consultation period followed, concluding early in February.

Late yesterday, leaks about what decision had been reached following that process began to appear. The suggestion was that, because of opposition to the plan from a number of cabinet ministers, the idea of a 45p minimum unit price would be dropped.

If that is to be the case, then it will be a victory for the spinners of half-truths and untruths. The opposition to the plan, let’s be quite clear, is being driven by an alcohol industry anxious to protect its profits and very scared that MUP could establish the principle that alcohol sales have to be better regulated to limit the extent of the harm caused by this poison.

As a result, I’m sure, of knowing that the majority of people will not have taken the trouble to read the detail of the proposal and would certainly not have troubled to read the research into the positive effects of MUP, the drinks industry has been able to plant the notion that a minimum price would fall heaviest on ‘moderate’ drinkers.

I’ve explained before why this is untrue if one is truly considering ‘moderate’ drinkers. I won’t repeat the full analysis but I concluded that minimum pricing could, if it led to an increase in all off licence pricing, add £1.20 a week to the shopping. But, I have to concede that it doesn’t matter how many ways you look at the mathematics, the public perception has been created that this measure will impact the ordinary man in the street without benefiting problem drinkers.

As a result of yesterday’s leak, the morning TV news programmes had interviews with people on both sides. The spokesman for the drinks industry claimed to have the interest of consumers at heart before letting slip that alcohol prices have already risen by 10% in the past year so, in reality, the concern is that any increase in price from MUP would damage the industry’s ability to protect its profits in the face of reducing sales.

It is not at all clear where the story started. The BBC says ‘while there had been no official confirmation the plans would be dropped, sources involved in the discussion said the policy was "in its death throes"’ but without saying which side of the argument those sources are on.

It could be that supporters of the policy think that making the doubt public will galvanise supporters and lead David Cameron to demonstrate toughness by sticking to the plans. It could equally be that opponents think that Cameron will want to shutdown talk of disagreements in cabinet and the way to do that is to abandon the policy quickly.

If forced to choose, I’d incline to the latter because a quick climb-down followed by talk of listening to consultations ends the matter in one news cycle whereas defending the plans against opposition from three senior ministers (well, actually, two and Andrew Lansley) would be a drawn out affair with plenty of time for op-ed pieces about other ‘rifts’ in the government.

That one of the senior ministers is said to be Theresa May, whose department has managed the consultation and is the lead ministry on the implementation of MUP, is a staggering demonstration of hypocrisy, if true.

A week ago, the Home Office published its official response to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report ‘Drugs: Breaking the Cycle.’

In short, the response slaps down the HASC and says everything is fine with current policy. It does throw the committee a bone by saying that a junior Home Office minister will visit places where alternatives have been implemented, such as Portugal, but Ms May has made it clear she won’t be proposing any policy changes regardless of what that visit finds.

For May, it appears, substances that have the potential to cause health and societal problems for heavy users have to be strictly controlled to limit their availability unless the substance is alcohol where the public can be trusted to manage its own consumption without the interference of government.

I suppose you could argue that there is no hypocrisy on the Home Secretary’s part because both decisions are based on the premise that consumption is already declining. With drugs, getting to the truth of that decline is made complex because the surveys on drug use are notoriously unreliable and there is no certain way to determine how much of the apparent reduction in drug use results from switching from scheduled substances to new psychoactive substances (NPS) that are not included in the survey data.

With alcohol, the reduction in average per capita consumption is made harder to interpret because an increasing number of those capitas are non-drinking recent immigrants. Getting at hard data is problematic but, in 2009, it is said that average consumption was 12 units per week. 15% of the adult population was reported to be teetotal, up from 10% a decade before.

There are around 52 million adults in the UK (of the 2012 estimate of 63 million total population) so about 8 million of them are teetotal. In 2001, the UK total population was 58 million of whom around 46 million were adults and 5 million teetotal.

If the drinking population made no change at all to its drinking habits then the average alcohol consumption in 2001 would have been 13 units per week. Thus an 8% decrease in average consumption could be simply the result of the increase in complete abstainers. And that does seem to account for almost all of the reduction over that ten year period though it should be said that alcohol consumption peaked in 2005 and current levels are around 15% lower than they were then.

What we can say with certainty is that claiming, in both instances, that nothing needs to be done because current policy is working is another attempt to spread false data to a population that has shown itself to be willing to accept it rather than look a little closer at claims being made.

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