Over at The Spectator, Alex Massie has been taking apart the notion that alcohol "costs" Scotland £3.65 billion. Meanwhile in England, the Conservative party has announced its alcohol strategy. As Taking Liberties reports, this strategy is based on the belief that alcohol "costs" the UK £20 billion a year.
As Alex says, these figures are based on little more than guesswork. The fact that the Scottish estimates, in particular, have risen dramatically in a few short years makes one suspect that they are based more on politics than mathematics.
We are victims of Government-Sponsored Study Inflation. In 2001 a study for the Scottish Executive argued that drink cost the country about £1bn a year; in 2004 another report estimated the cost at £1.1bn before, in 2007, yet another claimed that hangovers and bar-room brawls and liver disease and all the rest of it cost £2.25bn. Chicken-feed in comparison to this year's numbers.So here too we can suppose that you can do the sums any way you please and that, consequently, it probably helps to decide what you want the result to be before you begin the whole sorry process.
Some of the supposed costs are so intangible as to be unmeasurable. How, for example, is one to quantify the financial cost of "family breakdown" or "grief"? Of the £20 billion alcohol allegedly costs the UK, £4.7 billion - almost a quarter - comes from the "emotional impact suffered by victims of alcohol-related crime". But if we are to start putting a price on misery, what price do we put on joy? As Alex says:
The hundreds of millions of pounds it says are lost through "pain" and "grief" is nowhere balanced by the equally arbitrary figures once could concoct for all the (life-long!) joy and contentment alcohol brings. To say nothing of its positive impact on the birth-rate. (Happy, boozy pregnancies almost certainly outnumber booze-related premature deaths. This must be worth billions in the pro-drink column. These are the workers of the future!)Factor in the social cohesion - to use a favourite piece of government-speak - provided by public houses and the happiness-inducing impact of a dram at home and it seems to me that the ruinous impact of drink has, unsurprisingly, been vastly over-stated.
If emotional costs are ultimately unmeasurable, we can certainly quantify the economic benefits. The £20 billion estimate is regularly mentioned by politicians, but the document that gave us that figure also gave us this little nugget, of which we hear almost nothing [PDF]:
The alcoholic drinks market is valued at more than £30bn per annum, with around one million jobs estimated to be linked to it. Excise duties on alcohol raise about £7bn per year and, like other sectors, the industry pays local and central taxes.
Even if we take the £20 billion "cost" seriously, it is immediately outweighed by the £30 billion we gain. To put it another way, if alcohol control policies succeed, for every £2 we save, we will lose £3.
Faced with these hard economic facts, most public health professionals will huff and puff before saying that the issue is not about money, but about health. They would say that saving lives is more important than saving cash. Fair enough, and if they want to make that argument, they should do so, but let's not pretend that alcohol is a drain on the economy. It isn't and it never has been.