Making Up Harms

On Tuesday, the UK alcohol industry-funded group Drinkaware, stated that they would initiate a review in support of the government’s much-maligned alcohol strategy and is apparently “interested in the factors that drive ‘binge’ drinking.” In an Morning Advertiser article, Drinkaware director of marketing and communications, Anne Foster, claims that “Binge drinking and its negative consequences blight communities, families, businesses and public services. Each year, £21 billion is spent cleaning up after late-night revellers and those who have drunk to excess.” Of course, she never states where that figure comes from or how it was arrived upon, and much like Alcohol Justice’s funny math when they were trying to persuade the City of San Francisco to raise the city tax on alcohol, it was just a scary, made-up number with no basis in science or fact.

Pete Brown took to Twitter and called them out for that, saying first that “you [Drinkaware] have falsely stated all £21bn is caused by binge drinking when it’s ALL the costs of alcohol. (Or would be if it were true.)” Drinkaware responded by hoping “everyone can agree alcohol harm and binge should be reduced which is what our call for evidence tries to tackle.” Watching from the sidelines, that was a “spit take” for me, because it sidestepped the issue of falsely exaggerating the so-called “harm,” and to my mind even trying to quantify the harm at all is something of a red flag.

James Nicholls, Research Manager of Alcohol Research UK, chimed in on the Twitter conversation, adding; “the [£21bn] estimate is based on all social costs inc treatment, absenteeism etc. so includes dependency, home drinking +.” Which is the same sort of list that’s always trotted out. It’s misleading at best, and in my opinion deceitful at its worst to suggest that alcohol causes what they claim. Society is far too complex to say that “x” and “y” are directly related and that “a” causes “b.” The world’s just not that orderly and its unproductive to even think along those lines. We don’t think that way for anything else, with this notion of “alcohol harm” being pretty much the lone exception. We don’t, for example, talk about the harms caused by people eating red meat, and the additional burdens they place on the healthcare system by giving themselves diseases and conditions because they can’t control their meat intake.

Pete responds, appropriately, with the fact that “overstating problem creates moral panic and media sensationalism that helps no one. That £21bn fig really is risible.” That, I believe, is the major problem with these exercises; they’re dishonest at their core. Whoever is floating a supposed amount of “harm” wants it to be as large as possible so that it gets noticed and makes people think the problem is so big it must be acted on immediately, and without reflection. The same thing happened in San Francisco when a completely biased Nexus Study was conducted by the City to support imposing a separate, and additional, local alcohol tax.

Last year, another UK colleague, Phil Mellows, argued about this problem, as well, in his well-reasoned The science and politics of costing alcohol harm, where he also addressed that fictional £21 billion that Drinkaware used, when it was used by another group to further their agenda. At that time, another group, DrugScope, concluded what I’ve argued for years, that “social cost of drinking totals little better than nonsense.” Give Phil’s the politics of drinking a read. But I particularly love that nonsense quote, which is based on an article by Finnish researcher Klaus Mäkelä, published in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. That article, Cost-of-alcohol studies as a research programme, can be summarized as follows:

This analysis argues that estimates of the cost imposed on society by drinking are often grossly inflated because (among other things) they assume that hazardous drinking must be irrational consumption, that crime benefits no one, that drinking has no social, psychological or indirect business benefits, and that productivity losses are not counter-balanced by benefits elsewhere and by non-alcohol impaired workers taking over the jobs of the impaired. These assumptions are, it is contended, based on value judgements sometimes not made explicit, and lend the results of calculations based on those values a spurious appearance of objectivity and precision.

And then there’s this conclusion. “Even the most sophisticated cost-of-alcohol calculations include entries based on misleading assumptions or logical mistakes.” Amen to that, now if only so many of these groups and mis-guided government agencies would stop making up these numbers and instead debate public policy honestly.


  1. beerman49 says

    Great article – as the logical continue to battle the illogical neo-prohbes. We must keep up the fight against the idiots!

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