The Office for National Statistics released the latest drinking figures yesterday. Encouraged by the ONS press release, most of the media have focused on a rise in alcohol-related deaths of 3.5%. As this is a fairly pedestrian rise, the gentlemen of the press have turned the clock back 16 years to take a long-view; hence headlines like Alcohol-related deaths in Britain rising fast (Reuters) and British boozing deaths double (The Sun).
From the latter:
According to the Office of National Statistics, 4,023 people were killed by booze in 1992, rising to 9,031 in 2008.
There have been very substantial changes to the way "alcohol-related" deaths have been defined since 1992, but let's not get sidetracked by that right now. Instead, let's look at the amount people are drinking. 2009 saw a rise in how much women drink, but there was a greater decline in 2008 so it's as you were for the ladies.
The stats for males, however, should objectively be the big news story. Alcohol consumption has declined at by far the greatest rate in recent history, as this graph indicates.
But even this graph does not tell the whole story. 2007 saw the ONS bring in a major change to the way they calculated alcohol consumption. They insisted that everyone was drinking stronger beverages from larger glasses. Overnight, the amount men drank rose by 45% for women and 23% for men. In effect, this statistical 'correction' created the whole 'binge-drinking epidemic'.
The massive spike you see in the graph above reflects the statistical change, not any real change in consumption. It's an apples an oranges comparison. Whatever you think of the idea of glasses getting bigger, they didn't suddenly become so in 2007. If you want to see the real trend you need to use the same method throughout. The graph below shows alcohol consumption under the original method.
As you can see, there has been a fairly continuous drop in consumption. The picture for women is less clear, but still a decline is evident.
For a long time, Britain's falling alcohol consumption has been a well-kept secret. It doesn't fit the narrative of boozy Britain and doesn't support the neo-prohibitionist's scare-mongering. It is now so obvious that consumption has fallen (under either method of calculation) that this truth is now being whispered. The BBC, for example, gives it a brief mention:
The trend to less consumption began in 2002...
Indeed it did. So much for the riding tide of alcohol abuse.
...and is unlikely to be reflected in figures on the alcohol deaths for some years.
Herein lies the problem. We have 13 years of falling consumption and yet deaths have doubled in the last 16. What will it take for patterns of death to start following patterns of consumption?
There is no answer to this because overall consumption is not a predictor of alcohol-related death. It's a red herring. If you want to know how many people are going to get liver cirrhosis or pancreatitis you need to know how many people are drinking at chronic levels. Fewer than 10,000 die from alcohol-related deaths, even after the definition has been broadened enormously. This is not a problem to be solved at the population level and consumption amongst the general population tells you almost nothing.
Policy-makers are so wedded to population-level solutions that this important point gets lost. It is quite possible to have serious alcohol-related disorder and death even as general consumption falls. So focused is the government on its ridiculous 28-unit-a-week minimum that it ignores those drinking over 100 units who are genuinely at risk.
As long as this continues, the many will be punished for the sins of the few while those at most risk will slip through the net.