27 June 2022

Lockdowns proved the public health panjandrums wrong about drinking

By Joseph Dinnage

Love them or loathe them, the successive lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 impacted every sphere of public and private life. From relationships to education, and of course the public finances, lockdown permeated it all. According to public health orthodoxy, suppressing the three A’s of alcohol availability, advertising and affordability – as we saw during lockdowns – would lead to less alcohol-related harm, and fewer associated deaths.

As with most areas of life, lockdown had a noticeable impact on the way we consumed alcohol, and proved ideal ground to test the above theory. For many, money was tight, impacting the affordability of alcohol. At the same time, the battering taken by the hospitality industry drastically reduced grog’s advertising and availability of booze. A new research paper by Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, studies exactly this.

On first glance, it seems the results may have landed in the nanny-statists favour. During the first lockdown of 2020, alcohol consumption dropped by 6% and fell by 4% during the year overall. Do I smell grounds for prohibition?

No. While restrictive lockdown measures may indeed have contributed to a slight decline in general consumption, it was tragically not accompanied by a drop in alcohol-related deaths. During 2020, the UK saw a 18.7% jump in alcohol-specific mortality and even then the impact restrictions had on alcohol consumption was short of clear-cut.

In each survey of alcohol consumption during lockdown, most respondents reported their alcohol intake had remained stable. Further, various studies found that heavy drinkers increased their alcohol intake and that binge-drinking increased among the over 25s. Such findings sit in stark contrast to the three A’s formula.

By no means has lockdown been the only challenger to received public health wisdom. Between 1980 and 2000, studies carried out in Norway and Ireland demonstrated the inverse of public health theory. While alcohol consumption increased, levels of liver cirrhosis fell.

All contrary evidence aside, prohibitive supply side interventions impacting the three As seem to be gaining traction. In 2018, minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcohol was introduced in Scotland to combat the sale of cheap drink.

The now-rubbished policy exacted a floor price on alcohol ensuring that it could not be sold at less than 50p per unit. Not only did the cost of MUP for consumers come to £270m during its four years of implementation, but it also failed to tackle the problem it set out to solve. Rather than engendering mass temperance, alcohol-related social issues either stagnated or intensified and drove the poorest drinkers to cut back on food to afford alcohol.

In the face of such abject failure, an impartial observer would assume that governments and institutions might take heed. Instead, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a paper last week calling on states to raise taxes on alcohol and introduce MUP to eradicate alcohol consumption and related harm.

Closer to home, this month saw the release of a UK government-commissioned review into smoking. Authored by Dr Javed Khan, the review recommends the banning of smoking in beer gardens and council housing, an annual increase of the smoking and colouring cigarettes green. Although it focused on a different vice, this report demonstrated just the same public health myopia.

What is clear from the failure of MUP in Scotland, alcohol prohibition in the US and whatever form the next public health intervention takes, societal woes are not best dealt with through sweeping nationwide reform.

Be it drug addiction, alcoholism or smoking, they are most effectively ameliorated on an individual case-by-case basis. The three As are patently not what cause these issues, but rather complex personal circumstances, including hardship and stress, that are beyond the remit of one-size-fits-all legislation.

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Joseph Dinnage is Digital Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.