Home > General Politics, Law, Terrible Tories > The perversion of science and the chavification of Scotland’s alcohol laws

The perversion of science and the chavification of Scotland’s alcohol laws

Today the Scottish government is passing legislation leading to a 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol.  The legal provisions have the support of all parties.  The UK government is set to follow suit, though at the moment 45p per unit is the figure being bandied around.

All this would be fine, except that the research on which the legislation is singularly dependent doesn’t actually say what the legislators in England and Scotland say it does.  I do wonder if any of the legislators have actually bothered to read the research. If they had, and if they’d appraised it honestly, the legislation would not have been passed in Scotland, and would not be in hand in England.

The research both governments depend on is from the University of Sheffield Alchohol Research Group.  The Scottish Government commissioned research and “modelling” from the Group, with its most recent report delivered in January 2012, and research for England in 2009.  The England report contains a more detailed methodology, but both studies are similar in design and the data used.

Here the crucial bit of the England report:

The elasticity matrices [the method used in the research] on their own are not sufficient to reveal the likely behaviour of the population to price changes, since these also depend on the preferences for beverage, drinking location and price point that the different sub-groups exhibit. However they do form a useful starting point for analysis, and can be compared with existing results from the literature. (p. 50)

My rough (and I admit slightly mean-spirited) translation:

The researchers don’t know whether the results the legislators want will be achieved or not through a minimum unit price, but they’ve gone out of their way to provide some mathematical modelling which suggests it might because, after all, that’s what the legislators want and they paid for the research.

The research depends for its findings on a complex set of mathematical modelling, with log-log analysis of the relationship between price and consumption, changing over time, at the heart of this.  The data comes from five years of the annual Expenditure and Food Survey and, in the case of the more recent Scotland report, the Scottish Health Survey.  This is sample data based on respondent completing diaries of what they purchase and consume over a two week period.

The principal outcome of the modelling is a set of  “elasticity matrices” in which the relationship between increase in minimum unit price and change in consumption is modelled for various population types, including moderate and heavy drinkers.  The model suggests that a 50p minimum unit might decrease overall consumption by 5.7% (Scotland research, Jan 2012).

It’s an impressive piece of work in its own terms, but it simply doesn’t find what those desperate to find a ‘solution’ to people drinking too much say it does.  Indeed, there is a strong indication that the real rationale for the mathematical modelling is to provide a fit with other research into the relationship between alcohol price/tax and consumption (not, note, minimum unit pricing):

Recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses by Gallet (2007) and Wagenaar et al (2008) found, respectively, a median elasticity for alcohol of -0.535 and a mean elasticity for alcohol of -0.51. By comparison, our elasticity matrix for all of England shows broadly similar results, with own-price elasticities ranging from a least elastic estimate of -0.2350 for on-trade higher-priced spirits to a most elastic estimate of -2.9386 for on-trade low-priced spirits.

The problem is that these meta-analyses don’t really show what the researchers and legislators want them to show either, even though they are meta-analyses of the general relationship between price and consumption (where you might well expect an inverse relationship)

Take the Wagenaar et al. study:

Price/tax also affects heavy drinking significantly (mean reported elasticity = -0.28, individual-level r = -0.01, P < 0.01), but the magnitude of effect is smaller than effects on overall drinking.

This is the opposite of what the legislation is aimed at: heavy drinking leads to anti-social behaviour and increased health problems.

The Wagenaar report also recgonises that not all may be as it seems from the 112 studies it analyses:

[P]ublication bias(or, more generally, small-study bias) is always a threat to the validity of a meta-analysis. Statistically significant findings are more likely to be published than those that are not significant with one estimate suggesting that the odds of publication are 2–4 times greater when results are statistically significant. Thus, it is possible that a substantial number of studies with non-significant effects remain unpublished.

So what’s going on?  Why are the English and Scottish governments apparently so keen to push through legislation which is wholly based on wholly spurious evidence?

Why, on the other hand, is the Scottish government apparently so keen to overlook the research ‘findings’ that a 70p per unit price would lead (p.5 of report) to a 16.9% reduction in consumption, while the 50p price actually adopted will read to a 5.7% one? Does it not have the courage of its public health convictions? Or is is, perchance,  that a 70p unit price would put the price of ‘decent’ wine up, while the 50p one only affects the really cheap alcohol that the poor people drink?

The answer to these rhetorical questions is simple enough.

There is a problem-drinking problem – that can’t and shouldn’t be denied.   The respective governments are desperate to be seen to be doing something.

Doing something genuinely effective about it is beyond them, because that would mean putting in place policies (and government spending) which lead to people having realstic choices other than blotting out – at least for the night – what they have to live with.  That’s not a new, or British cultural problem – re-read the Paris bit of George Orwell’s Down and in London and Paris to remind yourself of that.

So the easy option is to put in place legislation aimed (almost certainly ineffectively) at a certain type of person most in the public eye.  Owen Jones calls them ‘chavs’. They’re probably called something else in Scotland.

And when the minimum price measure fails – and it will fail – at least the problem-drinking problem will be set out clearly in terms of the ‘target population’ (those chavs who got round the law by spending more on booze/buying it illegally), and the need to control it more effectively.  That’s even written into the ‘sunset clause’ provisions of the new Scottish Act.

The Scottish and UK governments perverting the role of science for short-term political ends at the expense of  social cohesion. Who’d have thought it?

  1. Roger
    May 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Excellent stuff – particularly the spot on translation of the elasticity matrices bit.

    But ’40p minimum unit might decrease overall consumption by ??%’

    Is that ‘??’ intentional?

    And I don’t think Owen Jones coined the term Chavs all by himself….

    My own opinion is that any proletarian heavy drinker who can do basic arithmetic will just take a megabus to Carlisle or Berwick every couple of weeks and come back with one of those granny-trolleys full of booze to drink and sell.

    • paulinlancs
      May 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Roger – thanks for correction. It was a mush cut and paste from a draft of this that I did ages ago. Now corrected.

      No, the Owen thing was casual shorthand to save space – might edit but it’s not central.

      I agree totally re: why the law won’t work. There’s more fundamental stuff, which I couldn’t cover her in less than I wanted to this post in, about how the whole mathematical modelling thing reflects a dominance of statistical methods in science (and govt policy) at the expense of other, I’d argue, more valid research methods – the like of which would vindicate your intuition abouit what will happen is entirely justified.

  2. May 24, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    A black market will arise (or grow, as there’s already a black market for cheap alcohol in Britain) as always happens when price or sale controls are in place. Do they expect this to apply to cheap booze imports from France and Spain?

    Also, if there’s going to be a price increase why apply it as tax and use the revenue to fight alcoholism? Lord Sainsbury and the rest of the barons must be rubbing their hands together, because this stops their having to compete with each other on booze prices.

  3. May 24, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Sorry, the above should have read ‘Why _not_ apply it as tax…?’

    Back to the cheapo wine…

  4. May 26, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I don’t think I’m really in favour of this minimum pricing thing and I loathe the SNP – but there’s a more benign interpretation of their intentions, which is that they just want to establish something as a principle without alienating too many people at first. Then the price will creep up. Common practice with taxes of various kinds, is it not? Also to be fair, some of the brands most favoured by the proletarian drinker are unaffected by this so far. According to one paper anyway the well-known brand of paint-stripper known as Smirnoff is unaffected. And the infamous Buckfast isn’t that cheap y’know?

  5. BillyDubh
    May 28, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Minimum pricing is policy gold for the SNP precisely because it’s not an increase in duty – which is a power they’d like to have, but don’t. So they can look like they’re “doing something”, give the Scottish drinks industry a windfall as a side-effect, AND blame Westminster for the fact that the extra cash is going to capitalists rather than schools and hospitals. It’s quite cynical, but it’s a marvellous piece of political triangulation.

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