Brown's beer: The booze "burden" is hugely inaccurate. The government is wrong

You know those headlines about the soaring rate of alcohol admissions and the huge burden that binge drinking places on the NHS?Well here’s one story I bet you haven’t seen.

At the beginning of this month, the Department of Health announced it was reviewing the way alcohol-related hospital admissions are calculated, because the current methods grossly inflate the true impact of alcohol on the NHS.

Currently, hospital admissions take into account all health conditions reported for each patient, not just the reason they were actually admitted to hospital. 

Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and you’re hit by a car that mounts the pavement. The reason you’re in hospital is that you have been hit by a car. But say you also have high blood pressure. One possible cause of high blood pressure is drinking to excess. 

So even if you haven’t been drinking on the day of your admission to hospital, a fraction of your admission is recorded as being alcohol related. 

Even if alcohol is not the reason for your high blood pressure. 

And even though your high blood pressure has absolutely nothing to do why you find yourself in A&E today.  All these fractions are then added up to give total ‘alcohol related’ hospital admissions. 

“When you take out these partial fractions, the estimate for alcohol-related hospital admissions falls from 1,057,000 for 2009/10 to 194,800”

When you read that alcohol related hospital admissions have doubled in the last decade, no one mentions that this surge coincides with this method of calculation being used.

It’s inaccurate, and the Department of Health knows it’s inaccurate, which is why they are now going to change it. 

When you take out these partial fractions, the estimate for alcohol-related hospital admissions falls from 1,057,000 for 2009/10 to 194,800. Of this figure, some admissions are ‘partially attributable’ to alcohol, and some ‘wholly attributable’. 

If you want the figure for hospital admissions that are absolutely and wholly to do with alcohol, it falls to 68,400. And that’s ‘admissions’, which is different from people – research in Scotland suggests a smaller group of ‘frequent flyers’ are admitted to hospital multiple times during the year. 

Someone who goes out pissed up and fighting every Friday and Saturday night could find themselves in casualty five or six times a year. But that key difference is obscured, so we’re led to believe each admission is a different person.  

The fact that this wholly misleading and entirely inaccurate method of measuring the damage alcohol does to our national health is now being changed was reported in the pub trade magazine, the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, on 2 February.  To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t reported by any national newspaper.

Which may be why David Cameron doesn’t seem to be aware that the figures he was quoting a week later – figures that were duly reported as fact by every national newspaper – are completely wrong. 

For some reason, the Department of Health didn’t correct him when he trotted out the ‘dramatic rise in hospital admissions’ and ‘over a million admissions a year’ factoids which it knows to be highly misleading.

The other figure derived from that number of admissions is the cost of alcohol to the NHS – £2.7bn a year.  Again, if it’s based on false ‘alcohol related admissions’ data, this figure is grossly inflated, but it’s accepted without question, both by those in charge of formulating alcohol policy, and the entire news media.

“In other words, half the cost of alcohol to society consists of costs that cannot actually be measured in monetary terms, and can only be given a symbolic value”

If you add in costs of policing, social disorder and broader costs to the economy, the true cost of alcohol to UK plc is £20bn a year.

Is it really?

Look in to this figure, and about half of it is an amorphous estimate that attempts to put a value on the cost of lost working days due to hangovers, lost productivity and profitability in the workplace and so on. 

In other words, half the cost of alcohol to society consists of costs that cannot actually be measured in monetary terms, and can only be given a symbolic value. 

I’m not denying these costs exist – of course they do – but if you’re going to say half of the total cost consists of unmeasurable estimates, shouldn’t the figures at least be scrutinised? 

The £20bn cost of alcohol to society was calculated by the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit in 2004. (Another, later figure of £55bn a year was popular a couple of years ago, but most of that consisted of ‘intangibles’ and we seem to have quietly let that one go.) 

“Anything that goes in the debit column must be mirrored in the credit column”

Since 2004, alcohol consumption and binge drinking behaviour have shown a steady, consistent decline (which makes me genuinely confused about the other popular claim that “24-hour drinking hasn’t worked.”)

But even if we were to accept the £20bn cost, it’s still an unfair figure to bandy about in isolation.      

When I did my business degree, I was really crap at the accounting part. But one thing I do remember is the importance of double entry bookkeeping. Anything that goes in the debit column must be mirrored in the credit column.

And despite the frequent attempts to calculate the cost of alcohol to society, I have never seen anyone attempt to calculate the benefit. 

“What is the benefit to the economy of a boss taking his team for a drink to celebrate winning a new business pitch?”

If we’re going to include an estimate of lost productivity and profitability due to hangovers, isn’t it simply a matter of responsible accounting to also estimate the positive contribution alcohol makes to the workplace? What is the benefit to the economy of a boss taking his team for a drink to celebrate winning a new business pitch? 

What’s the benefit of going to the pub on Friday night with your workmates and letting off a bit of steam? 

Or the benefit of getting to know clients or suppliers over a few beers, so you have a bond of trust next time you’re facing each other over the boardroom table. Or saying “Fancy a pint?” to a struggling member of staff and sorting out an issue off the record, in an informal pub environment, rather than letting it escalate to a disciplinary level?

Using the same level of actuarial rigour as those who have only chosen to fill in the debit column, I’m absolutely certain the value of alcohol in the economy is precisely £76.4 billion. 

I look forward to seeing this figure quoted in the national press in due course.    

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. Hewas recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

Read Pete’s last column - Brown’s beer: Why pubs must wake up to women

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