Alcohol Concern sticks to the ideology

It is brave for a lobby group that has a long track record of using dodgy surveys, junk science and misleading press releases to release a report entitled Stick To The Facts, but that is what state-funded 'sock puppet' charity Alcohol Concern have just done. [No link yet, even though the embargo has passed.]

The report can only be viewed as audacious political kite-flying since even the most optimistic temperance zealot cannot seriously believe that the British government is ready to ban all alcohol sponsorship of sporting, music and cultural events - goodbye, the Carling Weekend, farewell, the Budweiser FA Cup—let alone limit all alcohol adverts to basic information about 'the product’s strength, origin, composition, and means of production'. Alcohol Concern even wants it to be illegal to print alcohol branding on merchandise and clothing (goodbye, Sunday league football).

With tiresome predictability, Alcohol Concern says this must all be done for the sake of 'children'. There is, it seems, no interference into adult pastimes that cannot be justified in the name of those who are prohibited from engaging in them. For the moral busybody, all the world is a creche. In this, as in so many other ways, the temperance lobby has learned from their colleagues in tobacco control.

Alcohol Concern says that the government's Alcohol Strategy 'acknowledged the link between advertising and consumption, particularly in young people under-18-years-old'. It is true that the government accepts the findings of a study authored by some well known temperance campaigners at Sheffield University which asserts such a link, but Alcohol Concern do not mention that the government also says that 'we have not seen evidence demonstrating that a ban is a proportionate response'. Indeed, the Strategy acknowledges the strength of the current arrangement which is a combination of regulation (through Ofcom) and self-regulation (through the Advertising Standards Agency and the Portman Group).

Alcohol Concern refers extensively to the work of the Youth Alcohol Advertising Council. This (front) group of 16 to 19 year olds (the aforementioned 'children') was formed by Alcohol Concern and continues to be - as they admit - 'coordinated' by them. Alcohol Concern encourages these teenagers to lodge complaints about various alcohol advertisements, most of which are rejected by the Advertising Standards Agency. Alcohol Concern suggests that the ASA's habit of rejecting their complaints 'raises serious concerns about the current framework of control'. They do not contemplate the more likely explanation that these teenagers' complaints are frivolous and absurd.

Alcohol Concern repeatedly states that the drinks industry spends £800 million a year on marketing as if this were somehow shocking. What do they suppose would be an acceptable figure? Nine out of ten adults drink and we spend £42 billion on alcohol each year, of which £16 billion goes to the state in tax. Seen in this context, £800 million seems almost miserly (the answer to the question of how much they think would be acceptable is, of course, zero). They then proceed to make the classic blunder of assuming that advertising is designed to increase overall consumption rather than promote specific brands. Moreover, they assume that this particular form of advertising is designed to increase overall consumption amongst those who are too young to buy the product - a rather implausible business strategy.

Alcohol Concern claims that 'self-regulation is failing'. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a large amount of coercive regulation to buttress the self-regulation, this statement is highly questionable. Alcohol consumption in the UK has fallen by 16 per cent in the last decade. Britons consume no more than the European average. The proportion of the population drinking more than the government's (arbitrary and evidence-free) guidelines has fallen for both men and women in recent years, as have the number of 'binge-drinkers'. And, most relevantly of all, the proportion of school pupils who have drunk alcohol in the last week has halved since 2001.

These statistics should make any temperance group happy, but that would be to misunderstand the nature of the beast. Moral entrepreneurs and professional reformers can never be happy. Their jobs depend on them being perpetually disgruntled. No matter whether rates of underage drinking rise, fall or stay the same, the agenda is fixed. They are no more impressed by the UK having some of the world's toughest restrictions on alcohol marketing than they are by the UK having some of the world's highest alcohol taxes.

Whatever the level of marketing, it is too much. Whatever the price of a drink, it is too little. It is folly to expect such people to ever be appeased. Indeed, in this new report, Alcohol Concern all but admit that their latest list of demands - extreme though they are - are only a stepping stone towards the total prohibition of alcohol marketing in all its forms.

There is, then, very little to say about Stick To The Facts. You didn't need a crystal ball to see it coming, and it was coming regardless of 'the facts'. Like every temperance group of the last two hundred years, the only tools Alcohol Concern have at their disposals are the blunt instruments of price rises and prohibitions. They don't understand why people drink and they don't understand how advertising - or business - works. They merely see something move and, like a caveman, they whack it with a mallet in the hope of solving the problem. Such people should - and, I suspect, will - be ignored.

An excellent blog. I think that it is very important for free-marketeers to get their heads together on these lifestyle issues. As you have pointed out, sock-puppetry abounds and claims are made without any balance. I'm sorry to say that the IEA is not immune - I read Ruth's piece in The Times yesterday. She argues that public sector spending will be reduced if we can somehow reduce obesity. Maybe - but who knows? If people don't get one disease that kills them, they'll get another at a later stage - and this could possibly be more costly. Anyway, not the point. Extremely unlikely government would achieve much, but would impose significant costs on the rest of us. And, as Gilles Saint-Paul has pointed out, liberals should in any case not be confused with utilitarians.

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