Vodka stats and the Scots

A lot of media outlets have this week covered a story that adult Scots drink an average of nearly one bottle of Vodka, or nearly three bottles of wine, per week each.  That’s apparently a lot more than in England, so everyone there is having a giant laugh about alchie Scots today.

This story is based on the amount of pure alcohol sold every year in Scotland and across the UK. In a nutshell, the key comparative figures seem to be 26 units per week for each adult in Scotland as against 22 units for England.

But hang on a minute, isn’t there a difference between how much is bought in Scotland and how much is drank by people living in Scotland?

The UK (population 61m or thereabouts) had about 32m visitors last year.  Scotland (population just over 5 million) had over 20 million.  Over 90% of visitors to Scotland come from the rest of the UK but of course the number of Scots going the other way is only a fraction of that.  So net visitors to Scotland per capita dwarfs net visitors to the rest of the UK per capita.

And does it seem reasonable to assume that people on holiday are more likely to consume more alcohol on any given night than people not on holiday?  Of course it is. And has anyone spotted that Whisky is Scotland’s most famous export, and that much of the rest of the spirits made in the UK are made by Diageo in Scotland – so quite a lot of folk on holiday take a bottle or three away with them?

Without boring you with too much quantitative detail (about total overnight stays in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK), at a rough stab it looks to me that tourist visits and personal ‘export’ ( folk taking a bottle or two back to England) could alone account for around a third  of the differential between Scotland and the rest of the UK.  Perhaps the gap is still relevant, but it seems to me bonkers that the raw sales figures should be being touted by the whole UK media as domestic consumption figures without any analysis at all.

Unlike most media outlets, the BBC does point out that there’s a battle going on around minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland.  The SNP government here, and the medical establishment, want  minimum prices – the opposition (and the public) don’t and in Scotland that means it won’t happen.  The SNP has a minority administration, so they can’t pass legislation the other parties don’t agree on – this means they work hard to dominate the media agenda by other means.  And there’s a big election coming up, right? So…

This ‘new’ research is in fact sponsored by NHS Scotland, controlled by the Scottish SNP government.  Health warning required, then, surely? Not in terms of raw stats,  but in terms of presentation.

Some politicians, and many amongst the Scottish middle class establishment, seem determined to present Scotland as full of drunks. They say ‘we’ but usually mean ‘them’: the less well-off.  So, everyone else in the UK and quite a few people around the world, if you look at the links, are laughing at the Scots.

It’s hard to swallow.


Cigarettes and Alcohol

Here in Falkirk, there are new (but floundering) alcohol laws which forbid filling stations from selling alcohol and make it unlawful for supermarkets to display helpful wine suggestions at the fish counter.

Soon to come, apparently, we have minimum alhohol unit pricing. Across the UK, we deny smokers the right to have a fag with their pint, even when no non-smokers need be present. I appreciate the strong evidence which links excessive drinking, and any smoking, to bad health. There seems to me to be a pretty strong social correlation too. But, at the end of the day, are we not in danger of pushing freewill too far to the margins? And of allowing a kind of Victorian paternalism to creep in by the back door? I think we might be.

It’s tempting for politicians to ‘fill in the blanks’ – legislate too much because it gets easy headlines. And while I couldn’t have more respect for the doctors who tell us what are basic truths, I’m struck by the ‘moral’ dimension of what sometimes comes from the BMA. It seems to me that doctors are like car mechanics – they’re well qualified to tell us the consequences of our choices, our bodies or our cars, but no better suited than anyone else to draw the line between “what’s good for us” and freewill. I’m mindful of the dire consequences of excessive anything, yet I think it’s probably time we stopped filling in the blanks for its own sake and respected people’s personal choices a lot more.