The journal Addiction has pre-released an article calling for a revision of the regularly cited £21 billion estimate for the cost of alcohol to society in England and Wales. The paper, ‘Which cost of alcohol? What should we compare it against?’, is authored by IAS Policy Analyst Aveek Bhattacharya and claims that “these estimates rely on data that are between 4 and 12 years out of date and sensitive to questionable assumptions and methodological judgements”.
The £21 billion statistic is based on a 2003 Cabinet Office report, which has been periodically updated in the intervening period. However, it contains certain assumptions which have generated debate in light of emerging data – for example, over the proportion of A&E attendances attributable to alcohol. It also excludes certain types of cost, such as social care costs and the impact of drinking on workplace productivity.
As a result, the article calls for “a full, holistic review of the costs of alcohol”, with “procedures for regular updates, for example by developing a model”. However, the Government has maintained that it “has no plans to commission a further review of costs”.
The article also discussed the use of such cost-of-alcohol studies, observing that there is frequent confusion of costs to society, the taxpayer and the economy. It argues that all of these approaches are valid and have different uses, but that policymakers, academics and NGOs ought to be more careful to ensure that they are quoting the appropriate statistic to fit their arguments.
In particular, it suggests that the external cost to society, which is measured by the Cabinet Office report, is a “lowest common denominator” which is most likely to support a consensus in guiding alcohol tax policy. This argument is extended in last week’s IAS report, Dereliction of Duty: Are UK alcohol taxes too low?
The article was commissioned for Addiction’s ‘For Debate’ section, and will be published alongside a set of commentaries in the print edition of the journal later this year.