Brown's beer: Why we pay 13 times more tax on beer than the Germans

Historian and writer Pete Brown shed lights on the false accusations facing Britain and asks when will the media stop lying

Comedian Stewart Lee tells a lovely story about how he once found himself in the back of the can being told by the driver, apropos of nothing, that homosexuality was immoral. 

Being somewhat cleverer than Nick Clegg, rather than calling the driver a bigot Lee argued that morality was not absolute, that societies such as the ancient Greeks actually revered homosexuality as a higher, more profound form of love, so perhaps the disgust felt towards homosexuality by some elements of modern society may be bound up in a  cultural context.

To which the cabbie replied, “Well, you can prove anything with facts can’t you?”

That’s what I like about facts: you can prove all sorts of things with them, because they’re true.  Real.  Correct.  Verified.

Statistics are more problematic of course. Whenever I tell someone a statistic they don’t want to hear, they invariably brush it away with the old Canard ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics,’ in the mistaken belief that they’ve made a clever point, when in fact they’re only an ounce of bigotry away from Stewart Lee’s cabbie. 

I spent (what seemed like) a lifetime working with statistics in my advertising days. If the questionnaire is written properly, the sample size is robust, and you account for margin of error, then there’s no difference between raw, statistical data and fact. 

They show something that has been proven to be true, to the extent that we accept there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in a quantum, post-modern universe.

The ‘damned lies’ come when you start distorting the truth to make it seem to tell a different story from the one the raw statistical data seems to be telling you at first glance. 

I can be quite good at that.  For example, when statistics show me that only 15% of real ale drinkers are women - which is true, but disappointing - I choose instead to do the calculation which works that out on a national level, and tells you this equates to over one million women drinking real ale, and then point out that this number is up on the year before. This truth is no different from the first statistic, but it sounds much better.

I saw a trade press story last year about a survey that showed over a third of publicans think things are going to get worse for the pub trade over the next few years. 

Everyone was depressed about this. 

So I pointed out that if you read the data another way, it was telling us that two thirds of publicans - a significant majority - thought things were not going to get any worse, that hard times had bottomed out and were going to stay the same or get better. 

That’s why people hate statistics: they’re not lies at all.  What they can be is a cleverly spun version of the truth, which can be far more dangerous.

Two pieces of news came out yesterday, one of which you might have seen, the other you almost certainly didn’t. 

The first was that the new Statistical Handbook from the British Beer and Pub Association is out! 

Huzzah!

OK, I’m not really expecting you to be as excited by this as I genuinely am. But the press release from the BBPA had some rather wonderful facts in it.  Facts as in, we don’t have to spin them, they are there for all to see, there’s not really any other way of reading them other than the way they are presented.

One very welcome fact is that Britain now has 940 breweries, up from 840 last year. 

This is an incredible confirmation of the revolution that’s happening in British brewing - in the late seventies there were just over 200, and in the last year alone we’ve had half that amount opening for the first time. 

There are now more breweries in Britain than at any time since the 1930s. 

A more depressing fact is that, due to the relentless increase in the price of beer thanks to the government’s punitive duty escalator, Britain has consolidated its second place position in the European beer duty league.  Only Finland pays more. 

Put another way, we now pay 13 times more tax on beer than German drinkers do. (You can see why it’s tempting to spin the stats a little, can’t you?)

Here are some more interesting facts. Per capita, alcohol consumption in the UK fell yet again last year, from 8.4 to 8.3 litres per head.  Alcohol consumption in the UK is now 10% lower than it was in 2004 - the year before supposed 24 hour drinking came into effect and created ‘Binge Britain’. 

Are you starting to see anything wrong with the picture yet?  Well here’s another one: The number of 11-15 year-olds drinking alcohol under-age has fallen by a massive 29% since 2009, and is 50% down in the last decade. 

Isn’t that great news? Isn’t that something that proves responsible drinking measures are having an effect? Shouldn’t anti-alcohol campaigners be celebrating success in one of the areas they are so concerned about?

Which brings me to yesterday’s other news story, the one you probably saw, because it was in every newspaper (illustrated, inevitably, with a picture of someone drinking real ale), over three million children are living with a ‘binge drinking’ parent.

With a drastically weakened argument in relation to the urgent need for tougher measures on booze promotion and availability to combat under-age drinking (because it is a provable fact now that existing measures are working very well), the emphasis has shifted to the urgent need for tougher measures on booze promotion and availability to protect the children of boozing parents. 

Presented as new in this way, with these shocking numbers and calls for urgent action, the casual reader could be forgive for thinking that this is a shocking expose on a new problem, or at least a worsening problem. But if you read down past the alarmism to the boring bit no one bothers with after getting the gist of the story, the featured report grudgingly admits that this problem too is getting better. 

Though, of course, the story doesn’t tell you how much worse it used to be, doesn’t allow you to frame an accurate context.

I suppose I can’t really blame people who genuinely care about children who are at risk because they live with binge drinking parents presenting data in the way that best suits their case, because as shown above, I do the same.

But what I can’t stomach is a media that blatantly ignores the facts, that regularly tells us alcohol consumption is increasing when it is not, that licensing reform has failed, unleashed a devastating binge drinking epidemic onto our streets, when it did not. 

That children are getting pissed every week when they are not, and that the only hope for civilisation is minimum pricing and restricted availability of alcohol, and a ban on alcohol advertising

The old canard is wrong. There’s the truth, statistics, and damned lies.  And when it comes to alcohol coverage, the British media is hooked on the latter.

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. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

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