When he was criticised for changing his view on economic policy, eminent economist John Maynard Keynes famously replied “Look, when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do sir?” The same question might well be put to Professor Ian Gilmore in respect of the latest medical temperance scare story. Professor Gilmour’s article in The Lancet ‘Projections of alcohol deaths – a wake-up call’ led to media reports of ‘scientific fact’ that ‘experts’ predict an extra 250,000 alcohol-related liver disease deaths over the next 20 years – unless government changes alcohol policy.
The Lancet article is worth a read. It begins by quoting figures for alcohol deaths in the UK that are derived not from real statistics, collected and collated hospital-by-hospital, (of which there are none), but from the application of a 10-year-old mathematical model that calculates the ‘morbidity attributable to alcohol in countries with an established market economy’. The truth is we don’t actually know, as a matter of fact, how many deaths are alcohol-related. We don’t know because such statistics aren’t collected – hence the reliance on a ‘mathematical model’ as a substitute for actual fact.
Professor Gilmour then takes today’s guess about the number of ‘liver-related alcohol deaths’ as his starting point, and projects a straight line upwards if the trend of the last 10 years, as calculated by this mathematical model, were to continue for another 20 years. In other words he’s projecting a guess about the future, on the basis of a guess about the past.
Even if you accept the past numbers, as measured by this model, what the trend shows is that whilst alcohol-related deaths in the UK have increased overall in the past 10 years, since 2008 the number of alcohol-related deaths has fallen year-on-year. If you take the falling trend of the past three years as the direction of travel, then the liver-related death rate will fall from about 11 per 100,000 of the population to about 5 per 100,000. This would see a reduction of around 2,500 deaths a year or 50,000 less alcohol-related deaths over 20 years, not an increase of 250,000!
A downward trend seems a more sensible assumption given that consumer expenditure on alcohol has fallen from just over £43 billion in 2007/2008 to just under £41 billion in 2009/2010; alcohol consumption has fallen by 11% since 2004; the figures for people drinking above the sensible drinking guidelines has fallen by 16% for men and by 20% for women since 2006; binge drinking and underage drinking are all in decline.
Professor Gilmour needs to take a leaf out of Keynes’s book: The facts have changed - he needs to change his mind.