Sunday, 19 February 2012

Does the Irish government prefer its citizens drunk?

As Karl Marx said, "the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness".  Not a producer of opium, and with its church discredited after the industrial schools scandal, what better illusory happiness for the Irish than alcohol?

Keeping up the illusion
Why else is the Irish government making moves to scupper its own initiative to curb sales of alcohol, a problem which has catapulted Ireland to what journalist John Waters calls "the top of the pisshead premiership"?  Of course there is tax revenue to be had from alcohol and there are powerful lobbies at work but these 'benefits' are far outweighed by the health service bills, social problems and lost work days resulting from Ireland's rampant booze problem.  So the question arises - do the politicians see alcohol as an intrinsic part of selling the austerity package to the people?  Do they prefer us pissed?

Drowning our sorrows
This isn't a new thought. Last year Erica Alina wrote in Macleans CA that despite hikes in many taxes, levies on  alcoholic beverages were reduced. "With unemployment soaring past 10 per cent and the economy shrinking by 7.5 per cent that year, had Irish lawmakers decided to encourage the beleaguered taxpayer drown her sorrows at the pub?"  John Waters took up the theme in the Irish Times:
"When foreigners ask me to explain why the Irish people have not revolted against the incomprehensible and unjust burdens being placed on them, I tell them to look at the drinking statistics. Alcohol is functioning as a highly effective instrument of artificial social cohesion. It is the main reason why people are not marching in the streets or pulling the gates of Government Buildings off their hinges".
Greece certainly isn't Ireland, we keep hearing, but not in a good way.  Forget the spin about the violence.  As Professor John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism writes in The Guardian
"Behind the spectacle of the burning banks in Greece lies a deeper process, a quieter movement of people refusing to pay bus fares, electricity bills, motorway tolls, bank debts; a movement, born of necessity and conviction, of people organising their lives in a different way, creating communities of mutual support and food networks, squatting empty buildings and land, creating community gardens, returning to the countryside, turning their backs on the politicians (who are now afraid to show themselves in the streets) and creating directly democratic forms of taking social decisions".
People feel powerless
In Ireland that just isn't happening.  While many choose to spend their leisure time drinking at home the protests at Occupy Dame Street and Ballyhea are finding it difficult to build the numbers. 

Reclaiming the streets of Ballyhea
The weekly Ballyhea town march against bondholder payouts is getting attention abroad, but as marcher Denis McNamara says
"many people are worried about being seen protesting, fearing it may affect their jobs, or their ability to borrow money from the banks....many Irish people just feel too despairing to believe they can make a difference.  People are angry, no doubt about it. On the sidewalk they shout: 'Well done! Good stuff! Keep it going,' and we would say: 'Fall in with us, we are only walking up as far as the church and down to the library.' But no. People almost universally support what I am doing, but they think it is a waste of time. People feel powerless". 
In publicising the unfairness of the austerity measures and the culpability of the banks, the protestors at Occupy Dame Street have recognised the need to be sober while building a functioning new society.  In contrast to former Taoiseach Brian Cowen who was reportedly no stranger to the Dail bar, the Dame Street protestors have banned alcohol from their camp and all associated events.  As protestor Sean Creagh explains "the plan is to keep the peace at the camp. The organisers have banned alcohol and drugs from it and will help the police to extract anyone breaking that rule".  In the absence of an alternative, the protest can claim to be the articulate and sober voice of the real people.

Bank payments before health
While the Dame Street protestors shiver in tents outside the Central Bank, those inside the bank system have reached a different view of alcohol.   Many of the 74,000 homeowners defaulting on mortgage payments have been asked to complete a 12 page finance review which offers them a payment holiday in return for cutting down on pretty well everything else.  On the banks hit list for borrowers to default on are school fees, health insurance, television subscriptions and a commitment to "shop in discount stores like Aldi or Lidl instead of local shops or supermarket chains."  Nothing, it seems, is more important than keeping up payments to the banks. 

Well not quite nothing. New Beginning, a legal support group, sees large numbers of cases where people are being challenged by banks even on what they spent on groceries. As David Hall of the service says, despite draconian challenges to every other expense by the banks "when it comes to drink and cigarettes, they do not seem to be challenging the spending.” 

"Lads, this is serious"
So Ireland has its priorities set: unregulated booze and out of control banks.  It is now famous for both. but not necessarily proud of either.  Brendan Gleeson's lead character in The Guard is warned not to 'show us up... in front of the American".  As crowds queued for Obama’s speech, a Garda had the same concern: “No alcohol allowed” he shouted on a loudspeaker. The crowd of 3000+ sarcastically replied “noooooooooooo!” Garda on loudspeaker: “lads this is serious”.   Not serious enough, apparently.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The best facts money can buy. Alcohol, evidence and Matt Cooper

Truth becomes a commodity when it can be measured in column inches in the newspapers, and those can be bought.  Bias in reporting, selling opinion as fact and rehashing research without questioning its authorship are all ways to flood the media with ideas that then occupy the space marked 'accepted fact'.  In the news this month are the case of the doctored research, amateurs presented as experts and experts presented as amateurs, and an industry funded 'study' quoted as fact.

"Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones"
"The print media has to be careful in how it uses off-the-record, or unattributed sources" writes journalist Matt Cooper defending the established media against citizen 'keyboard warriors'.  But when Health Minister Roisin Shortall used hard evidence of alcohol harm and policy weaknesses to support what he calls her "approach" to policy change, Cooper implied that these were just her personal opinions.  "She believes that we drink too much alcohol in this country" he writes, and that the costs to society are just "decisions by individuals".  

Cooper, a usually tenacious and thorough journalist, boasts that his journalistic "experience...teaches the difference between a fact and opinion".  However he seemed reluctant to apply it when National Parents Council spokesperson Jackie O'Callaghan appeared on his programme The Last Word claiming to be an expert on alcohol.  When O'Callaghan said that children unfamiliar with drink at home are more likely to become alcoholics, Cooper failed to challenge it.  Worse, he also let it pass when she revealed that her evidence for this was that 'my daughter knows a boy at college who is always getting drunk"  As Clinical Associate Professor Dr. Bobby Smyth wrote, O'Callaghan "elaborated on her support for the myth that giving teenagers alcohol in the home magically teaches them to drink alcohol responsibly".

"Falsified data 145 times"
But academics are not always to be trusted either.  In December a leading researcher into the health benefits of red wine, turned out to have been fabricating the results.  Dr. Das, the director of the distinguished Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Connecticut, "falsified and fabricated data at least 145 times, in some cases digitally manipulating images using PhotoShop" to persuade us that drinking wine will make us live longer.  With huge money invested in 'discovering' the health benefits of alcohol which is actually a poison, Das's deception may not be so surprising.  It does, however, lead us to be cautious until we have looked at the evidence and, critically, who is paying for it.

Which leads us back to Ireland where this week Anthony Foley of Dublin City University Business School released details of a new study widely reported across the media, which concludes that a major decline in average Irish alcohol consumption in the last ten years has been found" and that "average consumption increased in several OECD countries but declined in Ireland".

The most enthusiastic supporter of this study was Kathryn D'Arcy of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland.  “Contrary to popular opinion average consumption of alcohol in Ireland has declined dramatically in recent years" she claims, giving "a real opportunity to introduce targeted measures that will help those who misuse our products most” and make the planned regulation of the alcohol industry unnecessary.  For evidence she points to Foley's study.  However, he turns out not to be an expert in health or social trends but, as his DCU biography states, lectures on "indigenous export performance, enterprise development and service export performance".  Just the man for the job.  So who would ask an export specialist to inquire into alcohol use?  His previous clients include the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland and Licensing World. This new report, it turns out, "was commissioned for the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland"

Isn't a report showing falling consumption of alcohol to be welcomed?
Foley's report is partially evidence-based, using OECD and Revenue Commissioners figures on alcohol consumption, but it does not produce any new evidence and is defined more by what it leaves out than by what it includes.  The figures it quotes show a sales peak in 2001, a decline in 2003 and a more or less flat line since. The sums seem to add up - overall recorded sales of alcohol per adult are down from 14.4 litres in 2001 to an estimated 12 litres in 2011.  

However, despite ABFI's claims, this still places Ireland well ahead of other OECD countries.  Australia and the UK recorded 10 litres per head in a comparable period.  And as Fiona Ryan of Alcohol Action Ireland has argued,
"the figure showing the first big decline in average consumption from 2003 to 2006 coincided with an increase in excise on alcohol products. This again establishes the link between pricing and consumption . . . Basically, we are drinking twice as much as we did in the 1960s. If we were all drinking to our maximum low-risk limits we would be drinking nine litres.”
The methodology of the DCU report also undermines some of ABFI's claims for it.  As discussed before on Gargle Nation, average ABV (Alcohol by Volume) levels used in studies are lower than those found in the the drinks themselves.  In Foley's report "cider is measured with a 5% alcohol content and wine with a 12.5 % alcohol content", but ciders are commonly 7% ABV and average wine alcohol content is now over 13.5%.  The study therefore falls short of a measure of the true amount of alcohol sold.
The Sun's cure for a hangover
Alcohol sold is not the same thing as alcohol consumed
The study also uses excise sales figures to measure consumption, but consumption is not the same thing as sales as the ABFI knows well.  Ireland is now unfortunately a nation with an established drinking culture and more than its share of alcoholics, so when price becomes an issue people will obtain alcohol by other means.  A Swedish university study from 2000 surveyed sources of alcohol as well as the quantity taken, and discovered that 2 out of every 8 litres consumed were from "un-recorded" sources.  Home-brewing is not difficult, and illegally manufactured alcohol is a growing business, for example.  In the UK the Guardian reports that "seizures of counterfeit alcohol by trading standards authorities have soared fivefold in two years, according to research which shows how criminal gangs are tapping into the demand for bargain booze". In Irish termsnon-recorded sales also include the huge cross-border sales from Northern Ireland amounting to over 189 million poundsworth of alcohol per year coming into the Republic.  Add to that people travelling from the UK with booze in their bags, and the Swedish findings will translate into a further 25% consumption than Foley is measuring, or closer to 14 litres per head.  

Judge by the results
Looking at sales figures is of course a reasonable pre-occupation  for the ABFI, but it is a distraction from an examination of the real concern of the Health Minster's at the moment, the cost in human health and work days lost due to excessive consumption of booze.  Mr. Foley concludes his study with the enigmatic statement that "from a health policy perspective, it is of interest to discover what effect, if any, the decline in average consumption over the past decade has had on the incidence of harmful consumption behaviour and on the consequences of alcohol misuse". The truth is consumption is still too high and things are getting worse.  Hospital admissions and deaths from alcohol have risen by 150 to 190% in the same period that Foley claims a fall in 'consumption', and this week the World Cancer Research Fund revealed that cancer in Ireland where people are "more likely to be overweight (and) to drink a lot" has "topped a list of 27 countries in the European Union with cases predicted to rise by 72%".

The DCU report does not address health issues properly, so when it points to what it calls a greater consumption of alcohol in Austria and France than in Ireland it misses another point which underpins the 2011 World Health Organisation study of drinking across the world.  The WHO assessed not only consumption but also risk from alcohol.  France and Austria do not have Ireland's major problem with teenage drinking or binge drinking, so the WHO gives France and Austria a low-risk rating for its drinking - Ireland was put in the risky category and is still there.  Nevertheless France has already lead the way with measures to limit marketing and sponsorship of alcohol which the ABFI is arguing are now unnecessary.  Unnecessary if your priority is selling alcohol, highly necessary if your priority is human health.

Triumphantly the ABFI concludes that "It is important that policymakers take these findings into account when formulating national alcohol policy, especially in regard to the upcoming National Substance Misuse Strategy Group report.”  I'm sure it is.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Supermarkets more powerful than governments, and cheap booze subsidised by tax-payers

As Albert Camus said "A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world".  The supermarkets are today's wild beast, profit continues to be their sole master, and governments are unable to tame them.  George Monbiot wrote in The Ecologist in 2000 "British supermarkets enjoy more political influence than almost any other corporate sector in Britain. Their huge financial muscle helps them to bend both local and national government to their will".

Salmond, Cameron, Shortall and Poots prepare for battle
Inside operators and off-shore bank accounts
corporate watch report in 2004 found that while Tesco claimed 'it made no political donations' the group in fact 'made contributions of £44,713 in the form of sponsorship for political events: Labour Party - £14,368; Conservative Party - £5,502; Liberal Democrat Party - £6,340; Plaid Cymru - £1,300; Fianna Fáil - £1,203; Usdaw (the main union for Tesco employees) - £16,000'. 

Influence is also on the inside of government.  Lord Sainsbury, for example, was minister at the Department of Trade and Industry in the UK, while according to Red Star research, 'in the late 1990's Tesco executives featured on six government task forces, more than for any single company and far more than the other supermarket chains. These included Sir Terry Leahy (Tesco Chairman until 2011), who sat on the Board of Trade's Competitiveness Advisory Group'. 

Meanwhile in Ireland the main competitor to Tesco Ireland, Dunnes Stores, boasted 'the alleged unorthodoxy of Ben Dunne's business practices, which included funneling Dunnes Stores funds into the offshore bank accounts of a number of Ireland's political figures'. 

Now, Monbiot writes "The only lasting solution to (these) monopolies and monopsonies is to break them up. Do the Tories have the guts to do this? I doubt it".

So why is this relevant to alcohol? 
All four governments in the UK,Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are building up to a showdown with supermarkets over minimum pricing and below-cost selling of alcohol.  This practice is one of the known key drivers of an alarming and costly epidemic of alcoholism in the four countries.  Who says so?  A major Independent Review of the Effects of Alcohol Pricing and Promotion  by the University of Sheffield, commissioned by the UK government in 2008, tells us for example that "just over 50% of all alcohol purchased from supermarkets is sold on promotion".  It is also the cause of much alcohol related cost and harm.  If governments were to pursue minimum pricing policies, the report finds, 'a 40p minimum price would give
'an estimated reduction of around 41,000 hospital admissions per annum....and unemployment due to alcohol problems estimated to reduce as prices increase: e.g. 3,800 avoided unemployment cases per annum for a 30p minimum price versus 12,400 for a 40p minimum price".
In Ireland the same conclusions were drawn in the 2010 HSE study 'Costs to Society of Problem Alcohol Use,' which reported that 'higher beer prices were found to significantly reduce the likelihood of drinking, drinking frequency and binge drinking among underage drinkers' and these findings are supported by a thorough World Health Organisation report in 2010.  So what is the hold up in applying minimum pricing?  The HSE report finds that 'large retailers (supermarkets) are increasingly using the discounting of alcohol at low prices or even below cost to attract customers ...Alcohol is used as a heavily advertised loss leader'.  And they always seem to get what they want.

"stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap"
The politics of booze-pricing
For supermarkets the issue is obviously one of profit and market share.  As Felicity Lawrence writes in 'Not On The Label', customers are attracted in by cheap prices on popular goods identified as Known Value Indicators (goods people know the price of well enough to make comparisons) and supermarkets 'losses on KVI's are made good in higher prices elsewhere'.  The most attractive KVI loss leader has become alcohol, an addictive substance particularly attractive to the 56% of shoppers who now drink to dangerous levels.  Meanwhile smaller competitors are put out of business because they cannot absorb these often below-cost prices.  But, as Lawrence writes, neither do the supermarkets.  Any losses incurred by supermarkets are passed ruthlessly onto suppliers who are forced to accept the mark down price themselves or are asked for 'a contribution towards profits'.  This is no small matter. 'Studies in Australia suggest that over half the gross profit of the big retailers is coming from payments made by suppliers direct to supermarket head offices'.  They have little choice but to comply with the demands of their biggest customers.

Tax-payers also subsidising supermarket losses
Tax-payers are also picking up the tab for these supermarket trading practices, according to industry insiders.  As reported by Shelf Life journal, "in a recent presentation to the Oireachtas Sub-Committee...Evelyn Jones (chairperson of NOffLA, the Off Licencers' Association) explained that a retailer can apply for a VAT differential refund when alcohol is sold below cost price, meaning that taxpayers are subsidising large retailers to sell alcohol below cost price".  This 'insult to injury' as described by TD Kevin Humphries in the Dail (reported in is also very lucrative.  The Sunday Business Post finds that “The large retailers can claw back revenue amounting to €350 from every 1,000 units of wine sold below cost, DIGI figures show”.

The supermarkets' chief competitors in selling booze are of course the pubs and off licences, and the suppliers hit hardest are the smaller indigenous drinks manufacturers.  Pubs in Ireland and the UK are going out of business at a rate of 52 per week according to The Times, and The Guardian reported that 'a total of 23 companies from the drinks sector went bust in the first quarter, compared with 11 over the same period of 2009'.  Many of these are represented in Ireland by the Alcohol and Beverage Federation of Ireland who are also doing their own lobbying,  An ABFI submission to the Oireachtas committee on pricing in 2011 complained quite reasonably that:
'In 2005, the drinks industry vocally opposed the decision taken by the Government to abolish the ban on below cost selling in the grocery sector. We recommended at the time, that an exception be made for alcohol as it was our belief, that such a move would lead to alcohol being used as a loss leader to drive greater footfall. This has been borne out by the ensuing retailer activity since 2005, which has seen prices and deep discounting of alcohol products.
The National Off-Licence Association (NOffLA) also spilled the beans.  Evelyn Jones explained in an excellent Shelf Life article headlined 'Minister echoes NOffLA policy'
“an ad hoc approach to alcohol policy and voluntary codes of practice for retailers of alcohol has been proven not to work...One can buy alcohol in every corner shop and every filling station. ..alcohol is displayed along with the sweets, biscuits, bread or milk and it normalises the idea of alcohol as a product...and is a direct target on young people,”
Bets are on...
Of course to introduce minimum pricing or even (though far less effectively) to outlaw below-cost selling will lead to a major legal and political challenge by the richer, better connected, more powerful and less accountable supermarkets.  As the ABFI points out, "The EU Commission has in the past noted that setting a minimum price for alcohol would be contrary to the EU Internal Market, meaning ...a costly legal battle with the EU Commission'.   In Scotland the counter-argument has already been led by Murdo Fraser, Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. "SNP plans for indiscriminate blanket minimum pricing would penalise responsible drinkers, harm the Scotch whisky industry, cost jobs and are illegal" he said.  A legal challenge by the whisky manufacturers is already under way.  In the UK the “Prime Minister is very concerned about protecting traditional pubs", and has bravely dismissed Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's call for a 'voluntary approach'.  Discussions continue, but the issues are already known and have in fact been on the table in all four jurisdictions since 2008.  

..and off again
Will legislation even scratch the surface if it is enacted?  As reported by the OECD , 'in 2004 two supermarket chains, Tesco and Dunnes were fined for reducing the price of nappies and baby food in contravention of the Groceries order'.  A pathetic fine of 2,000 Euro was imposed.  Tesco profits in the same year topped 1.3 billion, more than 2,500 Euro per second.  Not surprisingly, despite abject apologies at the time, they were at it again the following year by selling below cost Coca Cola.  In the summer of 2005, Dunnes successfully appealed the nappies case, and by 2006 the law had been changed to allow below-cost selling.  Who is in charge, government or supermarket?

The fight is on.  Expect a long winded retreat.  But as Camus said “Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it.”.