Why Sir Liam Donaldson is a tosser

It was good to see the Government getting its retaliation in first, and dumping all over the Chief Medical Officer’s proposal for a minimum 50p-a-unit price for alcoholic drinks. Even before the annual report from Sir Liam Donaldson, on the nation’s health had been officially published, The Times was reporting that “a source close to the Prime Minister” (doubtless speaking in a soft Fifeshire accent) had declared: “The majority of sensible drinkers should not have to pay the price for the irresponsible and excessive drinking by a small minority.”

Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Much of Sir Liam’s argument seems to be heavy on assertion and light on evidence. He claims that Britain has “a spiralling drink problem”. He invents an entirely bogus concept, “passive drinking”, which is supposed to reflect the effects on people of drinking by others, and which is clearly meant to have the associations that “passive smoking” has. But “passive drinking” doesn’t exist: it’s not the drinking of others that people are victims of, it’s others’ aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour. And aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour aren’t caused by drink, they’re caused by poverty, lack of opportunity and crippled expectations. Raising the price of drink won’t solve those problems.

Sir Liam’s report, available here, declares that” Every week, two thirds of adults in England drink alcohol”, so that’s about 45 million people, but then says that “alcohol is immensely harmful. In 2006, 16,236 people died from alcohol-related causes.” In other words, every year alcohol kills 0.035 per cent of the people that use it. In addition, there are half a million deaths a year in the UK – so alcohol-related deaths make up just 3 per cent or so of the total. “Immensely harmful”? I’d suggest not.

The report goes on to assert that “Alcohol has a major impact on individual drinkers’ health.” No – it adversely affects the health of only a tiny minority. “It causes cancers of the liver, bowel, breast, throat, mouth, larynx and oesophagus; it causes osteoporosis; and it reduces fertility.” Yes, but in each case it increases the risk by only a tiny amount. For example, of women who don’t drink, 9.6 per cent get breast cancer; of women who do drink, 10.7 per cent do. In other words, one woman in a hundred gets breast cancer because she drinks. The same is true of other cancers: if you drink, it increases your chances of cancer by a tiny percentage. That does not, I suggest, justify the scare headlines in, for example, today’s Guardian that “no level of alcohol is safe”.

I’ve complained before about ramped-up statistics – presenting small numbers in such a way as to make them look as big as possible. Sir Liam is not immune. “There are over 8,000 alcohol-related assaults on police officers every year,” he says. But that’s actually fewer than four assaults per police authority per week, probably not even one per police station per month. Yawn.

Then there are the made-up statistics. “The total cost to the NHS [of alcohol] is estimated to be £2.7 billion per year.” This is about as close to being a complete guess as you can get, and almost certainly includes a large proportion of sunk costs, those which would have to be paid anyway. And it’s ramped up, as well: divide £2.7 billion by the population of the UK and it’s less than a pound a week each. Big whizz. I don’t know what the cost of, say, MRSA is to the NHS (that is to say I CBA to look it up) but it’ll be rather more than that.

There’s the ridiculous claim that minimum unit pricing will be good for pubs, because there will be fewer people drinking cheap supermarket beer at home, they’ll all be going down the pub instead. Really? Even at 50p a unit, supermarket booze will still be cheaper than the pub – so how does that work, then?

I am also deeply sceptical about the assertion in the report, supposedly arrived at by researchers from the University of Sheffield, that “If the minimum price per unit were set to 50p, for example, this would decrease consumption by high-risk drinkers by 10.3%, while consumption by low-risk drinkers would fall by only 3.5%” Frankly, I don’t believe you can put any sort of statistics together and end up with a meaningful figure showing how much less drinking there would be for every 10p price rise. For a start, price elasticity, the most important part of the equation, has to be pretty much a guess, and the results are going to depend far too much on what your initial parameters – that is, your initial guesses – are.

Conversely, and perhaps even more importantly, nowhere in the report will you see anything about the enormous benefits, social and economic, of alcohol, the way it binds society together, and the huge and lasting pleasures excellent wines, beers and spirits bring when consumed in moderation. What’s the economic value of all that? If you said every drinker received just £2-worth of pleasure from drinking alcohol every week, that’s £4.7 billion of drinking pleasure every year – so that’s the cost to the NHS outweighed, for a start.

Actually, Sir Liam isn’t totally a tosser. In 2007 he recommended that the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers aged between 17 and 20 years should be reduced to zero, an excellent suggestion that would certainly save unnecessary tragedies every year.

Nor am I defending products such as Aston Manor’s dreadful Frosty Jack’s cider, available in some outlets at £2.99 for three litres of 7.5 per cent ABV rotgut – 13p a unit, the equivalent of 33p for a pint of bitter. Both manufacturer and retailer should be condemned for encouraging cheap alcoholic oblivion.

But Sir Liam’s final four assertions in his report need challenging hard by the Friends of Alcohol. “England is drinking far too much.” No it isn’t. “England has an alcohol problem.” No it doesn’t. “Alcohol is harming society.” No it isn’t. “Alcohol is not simply a problem for the minority who are dependent on it – it is a problem for everybody.” Alcohol exacerbates the problems of a small number of people, and their families. But their real problems are economic, social and, quite often, mental and psychological. Making alcohol more expensive won’t solve those problems – and in the middle of a raging recession, it seems cruelly perverse to make one of humanity’s greater pleasures less accessible.

16 thoughts on “Why Sir Liam Donaldson is a tosser

  1. When I read Sir Liam Donaldson’s ridiculous claims I guessed you’d pull them apart. It was clear that he was just pulling numbers out of the air. Thanks for debunking him so completely.

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  2. The exchequer receives £8 bn per year from alcohol duty. Add vat on that. Add corporate tax. Add income tax from those employed in the industry. These figures alone would more than cover the ‘estimated’ total cost of alcohol of £25 bn.

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  3. Look at Norway. Extremely repressive system, very high duty on alcohol, state monopoly for everything above 4,75% ABV, whose shops are so splendidly camouflaged you’ll miss them most of the time, only to find they’re more akin to fortresses, and that you can’t buy anything unless you’re 25… It’s easier in bars, just that a tenner for a half-litre bottle of Nogne O or Haandbryggeriet beer may feel a bit steep.
    Indeed, as a result, most of the Norwegian population does not drink, but the minority who do largely are the ones who would misuse alcohol anyway. As a result, the social cost of alcohol in Norway isn’t significantly lower than in more liberal countries such as Italy or Germany. And there’s only a tiny minority of moderate drinkers who plead for alcohol as a something to enjoy for its taste, not just to get drunk.
    Norway’s pattern is what Sir Liam is advocating here. Maybe he should actually look into the realities of booze abuse in Scandinavia and Finland before he utters any more rubbish.
    And indeed alcohol is not the cause for violence, and stupidity, it just nicely enhances the natural leanings of the individual drinker…

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  4. Hear, hear. Came to you via this post by Mr Eugenides. As he suggests, you’re spot on. I shall raise a glass to your health this evening (probably Cumberland Ale, but it might be Fursty Ferret).

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  5. Pingback: Cronache di Birra » Blog Archive » In UK un piano contro l’alcol a basso prezzo

  6. Dunno. The booze industry in England has been massively liberalised over the last decade, which has also seen a 10% rise in the average amount of alcohol drunk per adult per year. Of course, consumption is very unevenly distributed across age groups: what that really means is that the kind of people who used to drink a lot now drink a lot. Students I’ve talked to about this say they don’t go out for a few drinks – they either go out to get drunk or get drunk before going out, to save money (“three doubles works for me”).

    Donaldson may be scaremongering (“passive drinking”, forsooth) and he may be a closet prohibitionist, but the actual 50p/unit proposal seems like a fairly moderate and sensible attempt to push back against that trend, which would probably have small but beneficial effects.

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    • Ah, but alcohol consumption is falling in this country anyway – and Donaldson’s proposal (a) won’t work and (b) is the wrong sort of weapon anyway. We didn’t cut drink-driving in this country by increasing the price of drink – we did it by making drink-driving socially unacceptable.

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  7. My figures may be out of date, but if consumption is falling it’s doing so after rising fairly steadily for a decade – we’ve got a way to go before getting back to the abstemiousness of the, er, 1990s.

    Anyway, the alcohol industry is the enemy of good beer. I defy anyone to get seriously drunk quickly on decent beers (um, excluding the really strong ones obviously). You can’t tip back five in a row – the flavour gets in the way.

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  8. Sorry, that last paragraph didn’t make much sense. Here it is again with the logical leap filled in:

    Anyway, I liked the sound of Donaldson’s proposals because they struck me as a blow against the current Portman Group-dominated orthodoxy, which has it that everyone should spend as much money as they like on alcohol unless and until they start “bingeing” (at which point they should be arrested and/or fined). The government’s immediate response tended to confirm this impression. Whatever else you can say about Donaldson, he’s anti-alcohol industry – and the alcohol industry is the enemy of good beer.

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    • Too right and Donaldson is right up there as the worst of them. He never even really bothered practising medicine because he saw his career as forcing others to bend to his will as an “expert” in social healthcare. Jo Stalin would have loved this man.

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  9. DEFINITION PASSIVE DRINKING (VERSION 11.3 summarized by Georges Domert ,France): alcohol is 50% to 60% of crime and offences & 20% of homicides (by studying alcohol-related crimes, there are e.g. sexual assault); add to this 10000 deaths/year rescences by passive drinking : affecting the faetus of pregnant women (defects), road accidents , domestic violence, child & abused adolescance (beaten, school problems…), the workmen & finally fights in nightclubs, bars – pubs, holiday outdoor municipal (alcohol is associated with in 50% of the fights in general);Follow visible depression syndrome in number of cases of victims of passive alcohol, with cases very serious affected by the moral harassment (threats to break the figure, death threats, mockery-humour character reprehensible & aggressive-, insults, forced alcoholism as a pretext to the unjustified sale of narcotics & cannabis, reprimendes at work, hazing etc. characterized by of debility , madness or squizophrenie).Many authors (cancer trials) show the links between depression and an increase in the frequency of cancers and early mortality (cancer by passive Lac.); thus proven mortality can also result in suicides.The alcoholic désocialise teetotal entourage, the terrorizing and bungling his happiness. “.”Binge drinking exhausts the means of our hospitals, generating chaos in our streets and spreading fear in our communities, supported the Prime Minister David Cameron to the United Kingdom.Finally, we must specify the noise pollution remarkable competing pub Irish but just as possible in the simple neighbourhood of neighborhood or residential.Same for odours, sometimes some alcoholics feel the “ammonia”; not to mention the vomissents & some degradation – breaks due to States of drunkenness.On the beach: the residents sleep.Plantar morning bathers hemorrhage due to revellers (videos United-States_BLOGONS sur la plage) sometimes bulky waste.ALCOHOL KILLS (approximately 200.000.000 deaths preventable/century) & specific labels indicating the dangers should be affixed on each bottle.Finally alcohol should be banned in public places except special derogation, with obligation to protect people sober, tolerant of alcohol in confined & separated places.

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    • Regardless of whether any of your statements are true, alcohol (1) brings massive social benefits in terms of human contentedness and satisfaction (2) employs very large numbers of people (3) brings in huge amounts of tax tlo government exchequers.

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