A few weeks ago, the BBC screened an episode of Panorama entitled Old, Drunk and Disorderly?, taking a predictably hysterical line towards levels of drinking amongst older people. It was presented by no less than the erstwhile “thinking man’s crumpet” Joan Bakewell (who incidentally originally hails from Stockport). I was away at the time and so did not see it or comment on it.
This programme made the somewhat surprising claim, apparently based on research by Sheffield University, that imposing a minimum alcohol price of 50p per unit would, over a ten-year period, save the lives of no less than 50,000 older people in England. When the total of deaths wholly or mainly attributable to alcohol amongst all age groups is running at about 7,000 a year in England, such a figure is hard to believe, to say the least.
This was challenged by a member of the public and, after investigation, it turned out that the original figure had been overstated by more than four times. The actual figure, based on the research, was more like 11,500. This led to the following embarrassing retraction on the the BBC website:
Correction 28 September 2012: The main figure in this story has been amended from 50,000 to 11,500 after it emerged that there had been an error in the calculations carried out for Panorama by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.Apparently Ms Bakewell is also going to be called in to re-record the relevant sections of the programme for BBC iPlayer.
It doesn’t say much for the standards of journalistic rigour practised at the BBC nowadays that such a self-evidently questionable claim was allowed to pass without challenge. And, given that an error of this magnitude managed to get through the system of academic peer review, what credence can we give to any of the research produced by the University of Sheffield that is being used to support the case for minimum pricing?
Even 1,150 a year seems a questionable figure based on broad-brush assumptions. That is a sixth of the annual total and, while alcohol consumption per head has fallen by more than 20% over the past eight years, there has not been a commensurate reduction in the death rate, so to claim such a fall as a likely consequence of the policy demands a large leap of the imagination.
The truth is that, as it has never been tried, we simply do not know what the impact would be, and it is well-known that across-the-board reductions in average consumption are not necessarily reflected equally amongst all categories of drinkers. I would guess that, in practice, it would be hard to discern any significant variation from existing trends.
It also seems that the older generation are increasingly being portrayed as irresponsible bad boys (and girls) in the media. As well as alcohol, within the past couple of months I’ve seen the typical scare stories about them engaging in unprotected sex and taking illegal drugs, and it can’t be too long before we see similar reports about them eating junk food, “continuing to smoke” and engaging in risky driving behaviour. You get the impression that many would prefer the over-sixties to sit quietly in the old folks’ home, listening to Max Bygraves, eating grey slurry and waiting patiently for death.