Too much fake news on alcohol

Recent reports in the mainstream media have beggared belief

Claims of MUP’s success are premature, despite what you might read

IN a news-hungry digital world the most remarkable stories make their way onto countless websites.

Last month, when Scotland’s lowered drink-drive limit became five years old, widely-publicised research claimed that the licensed trade had suffered “little long-term financial impact”.

Apparently, “most participants” in a survey led by Stirling University supported the limit change and a majority reported there “had been no overall impact on profits”.

Startling findings, you might think.

But, as with all surveys, it depends who you ask. Or, more particularly in this case, how many you ask.

At the last count, according to official Scottish Government statistics, there were 11,631 premises licensed for on-sales.

The researchers spoke to 16 “owners and managers” representing 15 premises, four of which are in a rural location.

You didn’t misread that figure; the report’s bold conclusions were based on a sample of 0.13%.

Several participants were selected “as likely to have been proactive in responding to the limit change”.

The researchers claim that the study has “significant implications for international policy making”.

You may have your doubts.

The end of last year also saw an even more startling piece of ‘news’ making the front pages.

According to Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the BBC web coverage was at a “Pravda level”.

For my part, it looked like a piece of lazy journalism – in fact, as Snowdon called it, “an embarrassment to journalism”.

The story was headlined “Alcohol death rates dropping in Scotland” and based on figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) relating to 2018.

That’s a claim that would have benefited from the corporation’s ‘fact check’ approach – because, as a matter of fact, it’s plain wrong.

According to the ONS, looking at the previous year, the alcohol-specific death rate rose from 20.5% to 20.8% per 100,000 of population, compared to a fall from 11.1% to 10.7% per 100,000 in England (with a similar fall of 0.4 % in Wales).

The actual number of Scottish deaths was 1136 – an increase of 16 (1.4%).

It’s important to point out that MUP came into force on May 1, 2018, while the ONS statistics for 2018 relate to the calendar year.

But there’s positively no justification for the claim made by alcohol charities – reported by the BBC – that the new figures “gave cause for optimism that minimum unit pricing [MUP] was working”.

They do nothing of the sort.

As the National Records of Scotland observed, “it could be a long time before one could be confident that statistics of alcohol-specific deaths provide clear evidence of the success or otherwise of minimum unit pricing”.

ITV also bought into a breathtaking exercise of cherry picking with a web story headlined “Alcohol-related deaths cut by more than 20% with minimum unit pricing”.

The claim was made on the basis of figures released at a medical conference in Glasgow.

But, so far as I can see, the figures were, in fact, culled from data released by the National Records of Scotland.

It appears that Dr Ewan Forrest, a champion of MUP, had searched through spreadsheets and discovered that deaths in Glasgow had fallen by around 21% – ignoring the overall increase of 1.4% as well as substantial regional increases (for example, in Falkirk a rise of 71%).

The BBC followed swiftly with a story reporting the now-familiar call to introduce MUP south of the border on the basis of its “success” in Scotland, “with the publication of evidence suggesting MUP has had a significant impact on drinking patterns”.

In my view, it is nothing less than astonishing that propagandists are allowed to take control of ‘news’ reporting the impact of MUP.

It seems that, as in the political arena, the truth is apt to be collateral damage in the pursuit of policy objectives.

Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.