Wednesday 15 November 2017

Is your drinking like meat and potatoes?

As I noted recently, I’m maybe not as quick on the draw with these posts as I used to be, but I hope they’re still interesting (and maybe even useful) when I do manage to write something.  (And this time, as I'm able to release this post as minimum unit pricing is in the news again, as we wait for the latest court judgement.)

Minimum unit pricing was in the news again a couple of weeks ago, because of the announcement that it was being considered for Wales.  There are lots of angle to this, and most of them re-hash arguments that are ongoing and will never be resolved even if and when such policies are introduced in the UK, as ‘real world’ evidence on the impact of a policy is just as questionable as ‘modelling’, given that no policy is implemented in a vacuum.

What I want to think about is the impact on pubs, because this was specifically discussed with me by a few people on Twitter.

The key argument was put to me most clearly by Chris Snowdon, who pointed me in the direction of a post of his that features a neat and illustrative analogy based on meat and potatoes (or meat and rice, really).  The point is that as the price of rice rises, people on low incomes in China don’t buy less rice and switch to other things; they buy even more rice.  How can this possibly be, given the laws of supply and demand?  Well, they have a fixed income and rice is a more efficient thing to eat than meat, for example.  The lesson is that when times are hard, you buy less of the luxuries, and consolidate the essentials.

The argument is that a pint of beer in the pub equates to the meat in this analogy, while beer bought to drink at home is the rice or potatoes.  As Chris notes, if MUP raises the price of home drinking there are lots of ways people might respond to this (they could reduce their home drinking to maintain the number of their pub visits), but it’s pretty unlikely that spending on the ‘luxury’ of pub beer is going to increase.

Before anyone gets too technical, I want to point that I’m going to set aside the question of how likely it is that MUP would affect most people’s home drinking costs significantly, as I think that’s deserving of its own, proper, detailed discussion.  I’m just going to assume that there would be some noticeable effects that would be worth considering and potentially responding to for most drinkers.

As I said, I really like how neat and clear the analogy is (and he explains it better than me), and I think a key issue with policies like MUP is that they potentially de-normalise drinking alcohol, which of course could have a negative effect on pubs but also on drinking styles more generally.  However, I just don’t think the underlying assumptions behind the analogy hold for most people when we think about it in a bit more depth.

The key point is that there is a huge range of ways in which people consume alcohol, and how they think about this consumption.  And in fact I think there are some weaknesses or gaps in the Sheffield research on MUP, in terms of how the modelling takes account of these potential differences.  I think the Sheffield group would probably admit that although they look at on-trade vs off-trade consumption and prices, the impact on the pub industry specifically hasn’t yet been modelled in as much detail as it could be – possibly because this hasn’t been a specific priority of those who have funded the research.

But let’s think back to the meat and potatoes of the issue.  This is a persuasive analogy for certain sorts of drinkers and certain sorts of pubs, but you have to have a very specific view of alcohol that I’m not actually sure most of the population – at least consciously, or perhaps more accurately openly – would acknowledge.

When Chris Snowdon talks about drinking, he’s envisaging someone rather similar to the imaginary health-conscious unit-counter: someone who is (whether consciously or not) viewing alcohol as a single thing.  But plenty of sociological research would suggest that this is a pretty unusual position to take.

First off, most people don’t talk about their drinking in terms of ‘alcohol’.  In my research, most drinkers were keen to downplay the idea of units or alcohol content, instead emphasising behaviour or time spent in the pub/club.  For example, one man in his thirties noting that he and his friends were less likely to cause trouble than 18-year-olds who had two pints of ‘Stella’, even though they’d been drinking all day and consumed a huge amount of alcohol.  Very few people I spoke to expressed any ideas close to counting units, drinks, or even expenditure.  Most felt that the whole idea of counting was at odds with relaxing and having fun, and even those that made an effort to try this admitted that their efforts never worked in practice.

But this is a small, particular group of people, at a particular location and a particular moment in time.  There’s certainly the possibility that 18-24 year-olds today are more likely to be counting units, calories, and anything else they can lay their hands on, if there’s an app for it.

But most importantly, if we’re trying to think about the impact of MUP on pubs specifically, this all comes down to what people see a pub visit as being.  Is it actually the same category as home drinking, or is it more about going to a quiz, going out for a meal, playing a skittles match (you can tell I live in Dorset), or simply meeting up with a particular group of friends?

In research on drinking – and interestingly the Sheffield group themselves are doing some work on this more qualitative side of things – people tend to be clear about having different approaches to drinking depending on who they’re with, when and where.  It’s the old ‘Drug, Set, Setting’ approach.

If you think about it, as with most social research, this intuitively makes sense is something you already know.  (I’m trying to avoid saying that social research is pointing out the bleeding obvious, which is difficult, having listened to quite a bit of Thinking Allowed recently…)

It’s quite easy to imagine a regular drinker who always drinks beer when he goes out to the pub, but mostly drinks wine at home.  I know plenty of drinkers like this, and I’m not sure they’d think of the two things as being particularly linked, or as home wine and pub beer as coming from the same ‘budget’.  The beer is more likely to be up there with cinema visits or meals out.  Sure, if MUP had a serious effect on their household budget it could affect drinking out, but not necessarily any more than it would affect going to the cinema.

It might be that the beer drinkers for whom the meat and potatoes analogy makes sense are precisely those keeping many pubs open.  And in fact I think I’m one of them, as I only really drink beer, I go to the pub about three times a week and drink at home in between.  But I think it’s worth noting that, across the population – and even just looking at drinkers or people who go to pubs – these beasts are a rare breed.

For this to be about switching forms of consumption, the beer drinker has to be consuming a decent amount of beer both at home and in the pub.  In Chris Snowdon’s analogy, the beer drinker is having 10 beers a week.  Let’s assume these are 2.3 units, which would be a pint of 4% beer, which is on the low side for lots of people, but then you might only be having 500ml bottles at home, and equally some people might drink some beer marginally below 4%, for example – like Butcombe’s Rare Breed I just linked to.  That would be 23 units a week, just placing you in the ‘increasing risk’ category (according to the old definitions) whether you’re a man or a woman, which means that you would be in the top 26% of drinkers in terms of your consumption.  (I’m basing this analysis on the Sheffield report that underpins the Welsh Government’s decision.)

Sure, that group of ‘increasing’ plus ‘high’ risk drinkers accounts for 65% of the money spent on alcohol, but that sort of illustrates my point: pubs (and the industry more broadly) are relying on a small section not only of the population, but a small section of drinkers.

The analogy simply doesn’t fit how most people think about alcohol.  Like I say, I’m one of that ‘rare breed’, and perhaps that’s more likely amongst people who have a particular interest in the subject of alcohol policy – we’re more likely to think and write about ‘alcohol’ – and so this idea has a tendency to dominate debate.

That’s true whether you’re the Institute of Economic Affairs calling for a flat rate tax on ‘alcohol’, the Scotch Whiskey association claiming that ‘a unit is a unit’, or public health professionals arguing that people should count their units.

But actually, ‘drinking studies’ academics would be quick to point out how varied understandings of different drinks and drinking occasions can be.  Champagne is not the same as Stella Artois or WKD.

And more than that, we know that in public health terms a unit quite definitely does not simply equal a unit.  The drug, set and setting affects the effects.

Now maybe this idea of alcohol being alcohol and a unit being a unit is seeping into the public imagination, along with the tendency to monitor yourself and count things like ‘steps’ that I mentioned earlier.  But it’s certainly not how all people in all societies have thought of alcohol.  Countries like Germany and Russia have taken a different legal approach to drinks of different alcoholic strengths and I’m yet to see much evidence it’s how most drinkers in the UK think.  Certainly in terms of regulation we tax them quite differently, and licensing has long thought of premises in different ways depending on what sort of thing they sold – a beerhouse was most definitely not a tavern.

Of course, a key challenge here is whether what people say matches what they actually do, and whether MUP as a policy works at a conscious or unconscious level.  But it’s certainly worth considering.  Meat and potatoes both sit in the same analytic – and probably budget – categories of ‘food’, and they’re often purchased in the same place at the same time, or at least in the same trip.  What I wouldn’t feel confident about is whether most people, most drinkers, and even more specifically most regular pub-goers, think of drinks at home and in the pub as being in the same category.  That’s the key question.  Is this an issue of meat and potatoes or meat and washing powder?  Or even meat and Netflix?