After the season of good will, the season of bad omen. More Blu-Tack than tack sharp, Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, stuck at the end of last week to her message that there was no such thing as a safe limit to alcohol consumption, but if you wanted to live dangerously, then she supposed up to 14 units a week was tops. On the Today programme, she was the worthy teacher cajoling the dull child, only to be out-smarted by J Webb, who popped the public health message balloon by pointing out that normal drivers face a similar lifetime risk of death as that implied by the new alcohol limit, yet the Government has yet to advise us that there is no safe level of driving, or that drivers should limit themselves to 14 miles a week. The balloon popped so far above Dame Sally’s head that she missed it. When Jay repeated the point, the response was of the ‘oh no, we don’t need to bother with that sort of nonsense round here’ kind, followed by more chugging rhetoric on the risk of dying from breast cancer.
Today’s announcement by Scotland’s Minister for Emesis, Nicola Stugeron, that the Scottish government intends to set a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol reminds Dr No that a similar bell is set to toll South of the Border. Forty-eight hours after Porgie’s boomerang budget, the one that keeps on coming back to tap the Tories where it hurts, Theresa May was pushed on to the floor of the Commons, in a reckless bigger-the-pushed’un-the-better-the-cushion move, to zap hostile media coverage of the budget, by announcing the Westminster government’s own Alcohol Strategy. Needless to say, that strategy also contains proposals for minimum unit pricing, and, needless to say, both governments are equally deluded in their expectations that this daft policy will do any good. In fact, Dr No predicts it may even do harm.
Once again, the brown trout that wont flush away has bobbed up for air. Yesterday, David Cameron put alcohol minimum pricing back on the agenda. Across the land, responsible doctors cried Cheers! The Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Clare Gerada, who counts addiction – in others, one hastens to add – among her special interests, spoke for many when she tweeted the price, availability and advertising is all mantra. This mantra is underpinned by left shift, which sounds cool, being the sort of thing cool astronomers like Brian ‘Wow, Magnificent’ Cox might say, but it suffers from a defect WM would never allow: it is chasing the wrong hair, or rather tail, of the dog. In practice, minimum pricing will be spectacularly ineffective at reducing high alcohol use, and even worse, it will almost certainly result in blowback, by which Dr No refers not to the visit to the loo on the morning after the night before, but unintended harm arising from well-intentioned practice.
Hoping no doubt to capitalise on New Year temperance sentiments, David Cameron chose last week to announce a review of alcohol pricing. Westminster officials have been ordered to develop ‘a scheme in England to stop the sale of alcohol at below 40p to 50p a unit in shops and supermarkets’, akin to similar but further advanced Scottish plans. The idea behind these neo-Prohibitionist proposals is the so-called ‘single distribution theory’, expressed rather alarmingly some time ago in the title of a seminal BMJ paper as ‘The population mean predicts the number of deviant individuals’. The notion is that, not only can the tail wag the dog, so too can the dog wag the tail. Reduce overall alcohol consumption, and the number of deviant (i.e. heavy) drinkers will also reduce. Like most neo-Prohibitionist clap-trap, it is pure poppy-cock.
Earlier this month, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee lived up to its name, and beamed a professor into one of its hearings. G’day Gilmore was down under, in the land of amber nectar and rich red shiraz, and by a miracle of technology he was also present in Westminster. Asked by the committee Chair whether he could hear those stuck in good ol’Blighty, G’day assured him that he could. ‘Yes, Chairman, very clearly thank you,’ he said. It was probably the clearest statement of the day.
The occasion was the taking of oral evidence by the STC in the matter of alcohol guidelines, and as ever the troupe of temperance tut-tutters headed up by G’Day were in on the act.
Warning: post contains economics. Some readers may find themselves bored silly. In such cases, Dr No recommends taking a tea-break and returning to the post only when the sense of boredom has completely dissipated.
Economists are keen on a concept known as elasticity. There appear, from Dr No’s primitive researches on the matter, to be a disconcerting number of elasticities in economics. Naturally enough, economists dress all these elasticities up in hieroglyphics, but inspected through the lens of common-sense, economics stands revealed as a study of rubber bands, albeit rubber bands that drive economic activity, but rubber bands nonetheless.
Another voice has been added to the hue and cry for a minimum price for alcohol. Within days of Rubber Duck stepping down from his CMO post, the better to quack his favourite message, NICE, the National Institute for Health, Clinical and Anything Else Anybody Will Pay Us For Excellence, has jumped on the wagon. Voluminous guidance, published earlier this week, recommends a raft of measures that, NICE says, will ‘significantly decrease alcohol consumption’ if implemented. A top tip for government is to make alcohol ‘less affordable by introducing a minimum price per unit’. There was much talk of growing tides of unassailable evidence. Dr No began to fear he was now King Canute, alone on the beach, his once half full glass now half empty. Until, that is, he heard an interview on the Today programme. Suddenly the glass was half full again.
Sir Liar ‘Tombstone’ Swansong, ex-CMO-elect, has let it be known that he intends to use his retirement to persuade government to impose a binding minimum price for alcohol, in the hope of curbing alcohol related harm. A figure of 50p per unit sold has been suggested – which would raise the minimum price for a bottle of 12% ABV wine to £4.50, up some 50% on today’s minimum prices.
The planet may be heading for Gas Mark 10 – and the country half buried under snow – but that is not the only science anomaly in the news.
Yesterday, we had Pants telling us that not a drop of the demon drink should pass the lips of children. Where once we had Gin Lane, we now have middle class parents weaning tiny tots into blotto tots. Pants even managed to tot up some figures of his own: half a million of England’s 11-15 years olds had been drunk in the last four weeks, he wailed, before switching to Full Temperance Mode: childhood was being robbed of its ‘clear-eyed innocence’, only to be replaced with the ‘befuddled futility’ of ‘dirt cheap alcohol’.