One-size-fits-all alcohol policies fail to help problem drinkers

The problems with alcohol policy in the UK

The cornerstone policies of Britain’s alcohol strategy are failing to reduce heavy drinking amongst the most vulnerable. New research from the Institute of Economic Affairs outlines the significant flaws of advertising bans, licensing restrictions and higher taxes, which not only fail to help problem drinkers, but punish the majority of responsible consumers.

The government and health campaigners have long favoured policies which aim to reduce per capita alcohol consumption to reduce heavy and harmful drinking. This outlook is based on a blunt model devised in the 1950s, and ignores countless studies which have demonstrated that particular subgroups drink at extremely varied levels. Attempting to reduce a national average ignores the obvious: that heavy drinking amongst a minority drastically pushes up the average.

In Punishing the Majority, authors John Duffy and Christopher Snowdon examine how a relatively small number of drinkers consume a disproportionately large amount of alcohol, with close to 70% of alcohol consumed by one fifth of the population. Using several examples, the authors show the extent to which per capita consumption depends on the drinking patterns of a minority.

The paper calls for politicians and campaigners to wake up to the complex reasons behind problem drinking. Instead of favouring political interventions on price, availability and advertising, the health lobby should pursue harm-reduction and rehabilitation.

The problem with current policies:

  • A discredited mathematical formula - The public health lobby have taken the wrong lesson from discredited statistical calculations. When they see average consumption rising and falling roughly in line with alcohol-related harm, the response is to reduce overall consumption. This is too simplistic. Averages do not cause extremes, but extremes have a profound effect on averages.
  • Heavy drinkers are less price sensitive than moderate drinkers - Current policies to curb excessive drinking are based around price, availability and advertising. Price rises affect the behaviour of moderate drinkers more significantly than heavy drinkers, whilst restrictions on availability and advertising have very little effect on anybody.
  • A lack of complexity – In the UK the poorest socio-economic groups have the lowest average consumption, yet have the highest rates of alcohol-related mortality, whilst the richest groups drink the most and suffer the least harm. Lower alcohol consumption in the poorest groups disguises the presence of a minority within the group, who are problem drinkers. These people are being failed by current policies which only tackle overall consumption.

Statistical paradoxes:

  • Between 1980 and 2000 alcohol consumption rose only slightly in the UK (9.6 -10.4 litres per person) while liver cirrhosis mortality nearly doubled. In Sweden, liver cirrhosis more than halved while drinking fell by just 15%. It depends on which drinkers are increasing or reducing their intake.
  •  In the UK, per capita consumption has dropped by nearly a fifth in the past ten years, with barely any declin