Things that annoyed me today:
Mostly it was minimum alcohol pricing. Or, more accurately, a recent Canadian study into the positive benefits of minimum alcohol pricing and, even more accurately, the rather predictable band-wagon jumping of those who blindly favour such a policy as the silver bullet to solve all their national alcohol abuse problems. Yes, Scottish Government, we are looking at you.
Now, we are not going to deny that over-indulgence in alcoholic beverages is a serious problem for many countries, including Scotland and, indeed, the rest of the UK. We are certainly not going to deny that Something Ought To Be Done about it. But we are rather cheesed off at the usual, tediously predictable responses of Governments everywhere to something that deserves to be treated in a more sensible, grown up and Scientific fashion.
Instead, what we get is:
Plan A: Whatever it is, ban it. So, if too many people are killing themselves by jumping of high buildings then stop building anything with more than one storey. And knock down all the existing buildings that don’t match this criterion. That should solve the suicide problem once and for all. Shouldn’t it? Hmm… impractical you say. Time for…
Plan B: Whatever it is, make it more expensive. That’ll put an end to the problem. Too many cars on the road and we can’t, realistically, ban the plebs from driving? Well, just increase the Road Tax and the fuel tax until they can’t afford to drive any more. There, that’ll sort things out.
And this is exactly the conclusion a study in Saskatchewan has reached. Raise the price of booze by 10% and sales fall by 8%. Or, more specifically, and these figures are worth considering:
• A 10% increase in the minimum prices reduced total consumption by 8%
• Bigger increases in minimum prices for stronger drinks resulted in proportionately bigger reductions in consumption of those products
• A 10% increase in the minimum price of beer was associated with a 22% decrease in consumption of higher strength beer compared with an 8% reduction in lower strength beers
• Increase the price of the cheapest, strongest alcohol and people will migrate towards lower alcohol content beer, wine and cocktails.
Amazing. Raise the price of a commodity which is not, strictly speaking, essential for the sustaining of human life, and people will buy less of it. The higher you raise it, the less of it they buy. We are gobsmacked.
Mostly we are gobsmacked that this was actually published in what is, apparently, a reputable science journal (Journal’s Credibility Ruined). It’s not the facts, you understand. We don’t have an issue with scientists doing stuff to prove what we all thought we knew already because sometimes they find that what we all “knew” is actually wrong and, even if they prove we are right, the point is that they have actually proved it: they have produced credible, repeatable, peer-reviewable evidence that our prejudices and prior opinions are actually correct. This is not that kind of paper. It’s stunning conclusion is that, and we quote directly here:
Minimum pricing is a promising strategy for reducing the public health burden associated with hazardous alcohol consumption.
No it isn’t. What it is, is a promising strategy for reducing alcohol sales. Whether that means the cretins who get drunk and end up damaging themselves, others, property or just the pleasant ambience of a public space are going to indulge in any less of that anti-social behaviour has not been addressed by this study. It has simply found that putting prices up reduces sales.
It follows, therefore, that if we are concerned at the number of young, male, recently qualified drivers on our roads who drive too fast and too aggressively the obvious solution is to raise the price of petrol at the pumps by 10%. If we follow the logic of this study that will, quite clearly, reduce the number of accidents or near-accidents caused by the afore-mentioned young men. Won’t it? Well, unless the people who want to indulge in the anti-social behaviour just grit their teeth and pay the higher prices so they can continue to have what they see as “fun” while the rest of society sells the car and weeps all the way to the bus stop in the rain.
This isn’t just Bad Science. It’s Terrible Science. The logic is, in essence, if A leads to B then C must follow where C may or may not be causally connected to B but we haven’t bothered to investigate that properly because it was too hard or, equally, possibly might not have produced the answer we wanted.
Sadly, this pseudo-science has now escaped into the public domain where it can be sooked up by anyone with an axe to grind. Thus, almost immediately, we have the chief executive of something calling itself Alcohol Focus Scotland, happily telling reporters (Doctor Fails Science Test) that:
It shows the real potential of minimum pricing to reduce the consumption of those who are at the greatest risk of harm from their drinking.
Again, no it doesn’t. We wish it did, because then we might feel willing to back a control mechanism that actually works. But there is no actual scientific evidence for the claims and conclusions being presented. There is, we happily accept, evidence that making stuff more expensive means people will buy less of it but that is all this means. And for anyone to claim otherwise displays either a tragic lack of understanding of How Science Works or a blinkered willingness to push a scientifically dubious agenda.
The true tragedy here is, of course, that banning booze or pushing up its prices does not make any attempt to address the real issue of why so many people feel the need to over-indulge to such a ludicrous extent on such a regular basis and why, when they do, so many of them turn into obnoxious morons. An alcohol control policy that examined why these things happen would be starting from a far more credible basis because real Science seeks reasons for phenomena. That’s the theory part in the Scientific Method. You have to figure out why things play out the way they do. Once you’ve grasped that, you can start to consider how to change that behaviour.
But really, that’s just too hard for politicians or, apparently, the Alcohol Focus Group, to get their heads around. Much easier to just go with your prejudices and grasp at straws which, if suitably twisted, can seem to provide them with a nebulous, but gratifying, support that you would never get from real Science.
Still, drink up, gentlemen, please. While you still can.