Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Beer isn't cheaper than water

Twice in one month now, the opportunity’s arisen for me to write about exactly the issues I started this blog to discuss.  First, it was about the Total Consumption Model of alcohol harm; this time it’s about rhetorical flourishes in policy debates.

My favourite flourish of this kind in recent times is David Cameron’s claim that he wanted to stop 20 ‘tins’ of Stella being sold for £5.  I’d love to know where he saw that offer.  Today’s isn’t quite so eye-catching, as it’s a tired old formula, but I think it’s even more irritating as it hasn’t got the comedy value of the alcoholic equivalent of a politician not knowing the price of a pint of milk.

The Daily Mail (and apparently the Sunday Times) has picked up on a press release based on Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on the scourge of cheap alcohol to suggest that alcohol is being sold cheaper than water.

There’s all sorts of problems with this comparison, and I don’t want to labour them too much here.  Obviously, the claim isn’t referring to how most people get most of their water: out of a tap.  More than that, it’s comparing Perrier with Strongbow, Carling, Carlsberg and Fosters.

This immediately makes me think there’s been a misunderstanding here, and initially made me reach for my stock example about averages and distributions: I can’t run as fast as Marion Jones (I’m showing my age now) but that doesn’t mean women in general – or on average – run faster than me or men in general.  Or to take the gender split the other way round, it makes no sense to compare my salary to the Chief Exec of Dorset County Council and then start talking about how men are paid less than women.  What this observation tells us is that one brand of bottled water (sparkling, so slightly misleading even to just refer to it as water) is cheaper than a few brands of beer and cider.

In fact, neither the salary or running example conveys the oddness of this comparison when we’re considering low-priced alcohol, because I don’t know if the very slowest runner or lowest-paid worker is a man or a woman.  Instead, it’s like suits and shirts.  There’s a shirt at M&S that costs £99, and you can get a suit for £79.  But if we’re interested in comparing these items, we know that the cheapest thing to buy out of the two categories will invariably be a shirt – and by some distance.

It’s the same with drinks: the cheapest drink for me to buy in a supermarket will be own-brand bottled water rather than anything alcoholic.

So what does the comparison of water and beer illuminate?  The answer is nothing.  It’s an easy, quick story that gets repeated over and over.  It can’t help public understanding because I can’t imagine the price of Perrier is a way anybody weighs up decisions – I can’t even imagine very many people know the price of Perrier.

Comparing the two products suggests they’re comparable; I just can’t see how the two are.

The argument in favour of the comparison would be that it’s got media coverage, and plenty of people are debating alcohol policy as a result – including me.  However, it’s worth returning to L Susan Stebbing, whose book title this blog has shamelessly stolen.  Her key argument was that we’d be much more likely to get sensible, workable policies in place if we had a sensible, open debate about what should be done and why.

Commenting on the critical faculties of the voting public and the quality of public debate, Stebbing worried that ‘rhetorical persuasion will in fact be substituted for rational argument and for reasonable consideration of the difficulties that confront any democratic government.’  She lamented that ‘it is not surprising, however saddening it may be, that many of our statesmen do not trust the citizens to think, but rely instead upon the arts of persuasion.’

I’m not sure that alcohol is ‘too cheap’, or that there’s a neat solution to this apparent problem (which can only be a problem because of one or more of the myriad of potential issues associated with alcohol).  However, I could certainly be persuaded.

I won’t be persuaded by misleading claims that beer is cheaper than water though – and, like Stebbing, I wouldn’t want a policymaking environment where such laughable claims have any serious weight.

I’m not sure policymakers are persuaded either – in which case the use of such devices suggests that either the commentator doesn’t understand GCSE Maths, or thinks viewers of the programme – and voters – won’t.  Neither is very encouraging.

It would be nice if we could have a sensible debate.  It really isn’t that hard.

On the plus side, at least I can feel that this website, and the work of Stebbing, is still relevant.


  1. Dear Will,

    If only leading public health academics would publicly call 'bullshit' on this ridiculous comparison, it would soon stop being used. But they don’t because it doesn’t suit their purpose.

    Could their silence be is support of demonstrating the need for more alcohol research grants? Could it be the academics in the field don’t want to be seen to be less than 100% committed to the cause, or to embarrass the leading alcohol advocates?

    I leave it to you to decide what their purpose could be in remaining silent on such a stupid argument.

  2. To be fair, plenty of people in the field do take a stand against this kind of comparison, as certainly choose not to use it themselves - e.g. the Sheffiled research group: https://twitter.com/JHolmesSheff/status/483519194445905920

    I don't think the use of the comparison, though, is calculating in the way you think. I think it's as simple as an attempt to get coverage for a story they think is of genuine value - and it works as a hook for newspapers across the political spectrum, so the comms people would feel that's job done.

    As I was boring someone at work about yesterday, though, it would be nice if comms efforts were genuinely about communication and improving the quality of debate, rather than simply spinning in order to get things done. This really is the Stebbing point that we should treat each other like intelligent human beings capable of reasonable debate.

  3. But nobody contradicts the absurd claim in any way that the media will actually notice it. So the public are none the wiser.

    I think it was Stanton Peele who once said that alcohol and drug researchers/advocates can get away with any overblown claim about drugs or alcohol without fear of being publicly contradicted by another expert.

    Perhaps its the motivation of the Noble Lie at work?