For the second time in a few years, a UK Government agency has admitted to making a mistake regarding statistics used in the creation and furtherance of alcohol policy. The first, in 2007, was when the UK’s Department of Health revealed that the definition of a hazardous drinker, that is what the safe limits of alcohol intake were said to be, was completely made up, quite literally “plucked out of the air.”
On Monday, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) “admitted that it misrepresented the trends in alcohol consumption and has issued a sincere apology to the Portman Group, the drinks industry organisation that champions responsible drinking.”
According to Straight Statistics:
In a report about the productivity of the NHS published at the end of last month, the claim was made that the proportion of women drinking more than 14 units a week had increased by a fifth since 1998, leading to a greater demand for healthcare. As Straight Statistics reported here, there was no justification for such a claim.
A change in methodology for measuring alcohol consumption in 2006 creates a break in the time series. If not allowed for, this gives the impression that the number of women who exceed 14 units a week has indeed increased. Plenty of anti-drink campaigners are happy to spread this false message but it came as a shock when the ONS did so.
David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group wrote to Stephen Penneck, Director General of the ONS, who has now replied admitting that Mr Poley’s concerns are “entirely justified”. He blames a “lapse in the quality assurance process by which we check carefully the accuracy and reliability of any information that is for publication … unfortunately in this rare instance a key issue went unnoticed.”
The article and press release have been amended. The article, accessible here, is now proceeded by a correction notice. The press release now reads: “The percentage of males and females consuming over the weekly recommended alcohol limits declined from 2006 to 2009.”
Mr Penneck’s response is prompt, straightforward, and makes no attempt to fudge the issue. If only it were equally easy to persuade the media to look more critically at its assumptions about drinking being out of control.
At least they admitted their error. I doubt the same would be true on this side of the pond, where statistical errors tend to live in perpetuity if they serve the anti-alcohol agenda. But the original stories that parroted the incorrect statistics that drinking for women has increased in The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Star are still out there and, as far as I know, have not been corrected. They can’t be, really, because the stories focused on the false problem at the heart of the mistake. And that’s the same here, too, as propaganda — even after it’s been disproved — is still used by numerous anti-alcohol groups. Repeat a lie often enough and … well, you know the rest.