Comment - Beer - The (Mis)Appliance of Science
When the scientists are wheeled out to discuss the latest drinks scare story, we cow to their words. But, wait. Pete Brown has dug a little deeper, and found that their perceived statements of fact have quite a few holes. These holes, Pete feels, are opportunities for our industry - if only we've got the stomach to crawl through them.
Is it silly season yet? I think it might be. Dumb stories filling up empty pages traditionally don’t start until August, when nothing happens because everyone is on vacation. But, they seem to have arrived early this year.
Last month, the British media widely covered a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists calling for the ‘safe’ drinking limits for people over 65 to be lowered to 1.5 units a day for men, and just one unit for women – about half a pint of beer, or a rather measly glass of wine. They did so because, as the body ages and slows down, it does not process alcohol as efficiently. It’s also taking into account that today’s 65-year-olds are baby boomers, who have perhaps grown up with a more liberal attitude to drink and drugs than previous generations.
Such scare stories about alcohol are commonplace here in the UK and as with many previous stories, this one saw large sections of the media simply accept as fact that our seniors are facing a burgeoning binge drinking epidemic, and must be stopped for their own good.
But of course, not everything is as it seems.
Never mind that, for many elderly people, the pub is a vital remaining point of social contact. And, never mind that the ‘safe unit’ guidelines that have just been slashed were, in the words of one of the people responsible for them, originally ‘plucked out of the air’ and have no basis in research.
No, what’s particularly interesting about this report is that it’s titled ‘Our Invisible Addicts’. This is, say the shrinks, ‘a hidden problem’ because, if old people are drinking themselves to death, they’re probably doing it at home, where no one can see them (and where, incidentally, they are doing no one else any other harm). Suspicious at this mealy-mouthed explanation, I just read the body of the report itself and discovered a worrying lack of evidence that there is, in fact, a problem here at all – there are no statistics anywhere pointing to a growing trend of problem drinking among the elderly. Instead, the words ‘may’ and ‘could’ appear far more often than you’d like them to in a scientifically rigorous report.
It was a similar story six months ago when David Nutt, the government’s former drug advisor, declared that alcohol should be named a ‘Class A’ drug because it was more dangerous then heroin or crack cocaine. Again, this was reported as fact across the UK media. Again, close study of the report showed that it lacked any semblance of scientific method or rigour. Nutt and a few of his friends had sat together, come up with a list of ‘harm factors’, and arbitrarily assigned a score on each factor to various drugs, before adding them up. Despite Nutt being a professor, the study was not peer-reviewed.
Hang on, you’re saying – this is meant to be a beer column. Where’s the beer? Well, this entire anti-alcohol agenda is more pressing for the beer industry than anyone else, because there is an intrinsic anti-beer bias in media reporting of alcohol dangers. Last year, I went through every single alcohol scare story on the BBC website. Around 50% of these were accompanied by a picture illustrating the story. Of these, 50% had a picture of someone drinking beer – wine was in second place, with a mere eight illustrations. Stories about teenage thugs tearing up town centres were illustrated by a man drinking a pint of real ale in a nice pub. It’s more likely lazy sub-editing than a sinister agenda, but the bright blue spirit-based drinks that really fuel teenage hellraisers were hardly shown at all.
It’s important at this juncture to stress that I am not denying that irresponsible drinking is harmful. And I am not denying that a section of the population have problems with drink that can be devastating for themselves and others.
What I am saying is that, not only do the vast majority of drinkers do so in a non-harmful fashion. I'm also saying that, not only do the benefits of moderate drinking outweigh the cost of harmful drinking in society as a whole, but, in the mature markets of the world, both overall alcohol consumption and recorded levels of harmful drinking are falling, not rising. They are certainly not reaching any kind of epidemic proportions.
And yet, media analysis and stories about drink suggest the opposite. Meanwhile, the alcohol industry – often criticised for its supposed commercial and political might – is mounting no effective response to this distortion of the facts.
It is, of course, absolutely right that the drinks industry should be seen to actively promote responsible drinking and educate people on the dangers of alcohol. But when this is all the drinks industry is doing, it resembles a chastened naughty child. “Sorry miss, I know I’ve been bad, I apologise” – instead of “Hang on a minute – some of these accusations are way out of line”.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Any drinks industry spokesperson who comes out fighting is instantly going to be accused of denying the problem exists or making light of it. And even the clearest, most reasonable response to pieces of bunkum like those above is going to be met with “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” The problem remains that you guys are purveyors of booze, and those guys are doctors and academics. Anything they say must be true.
Except it isn’t.
When a doctor asserts that there is a causal link between drinks advertising and under-age drinking, no one points out that, while he may be an expert on the effects of alcohol on the body, there is nothing at all in his training that qualifies him to speak with any authority about how advertising works. When advertising experts contradict him, they are ignored.
We need to find a way of creating a more effective response to anti-alcohol scare stories. I’d argue that debunking studies that have no basis in scientific fact is just as much part of our industry's ‘responsible’ behaviour as putting health warnings on labels.
In both cases, drinkers deserve to know the truth.
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