Sunday, 26 October 2014

Alcohol Concern Concern

A couple of weeks ago I noticed this (see ) and noted it as of possible interest, but thought no more of it on the day.
Then I saw Chris Snowdon picking up on another typically seriously misleading alarm story from a notorious bunch of prod-noses and ripping it to bits. In following the story around other libertarian websites other things became clear, and it came right back to the implication of the Manx original.
In brief....Alcohol Concern are a typical UK sock puppet (government-underwritten “independent pressure group”, usually on quasi-moral issues, used by government departments to create the chimera of public acceptance for cost-cutting policies which that department had always intended pushing through anyway). Fairly regularly they produce “reports” and “surveys” which are used, unchecked, by understaffed media organisations and create social or moral panics. Others who check them, and expose their inaccuracy and dishonesty, tend to produce analyses which are too detailed for tabloid news, and even when the media is forced to print retractions or corrections these are usually confined to minor news pages, and so long after the panic has been sparked that the public have swallowed the myth.
In this case, Alcohol Concern produced a “survey” which appeared to show 9.6 million alcohol-related hospital admissions annually, thus tapping into public concern about overworked hospitals (actually the fault of government policies) without creating public pressure for the government to sort out the mess they created.
Snowdon began by comparing the figures to those of the Office of National Statistics. These, along with the Census, are the gold standard for any serious social research. He noticed firstly that the “survey” figures were not just a little larger, but larger by a factor of 10 or more, and secondly that tucked away in the small print was an admission that they were based on computer model estimates.
To quote a useful section of his response directly:
“You would only bother coming up with estimates from a computer model if the real figures were not available. But here's the thing. The ONS has detailed hospital admission data for exactly the same areas that Alcohol Concern make guesstimates for. And what a difference there is between the ONS's figures and Alcohol Concern's estimates.
In Barnsley in 2012/13, for example, the ONS says there were 900 alcohol-related hospital admissions (600 were partly attributed to alcohol, 300 were wholly attributed to alcohol). Alcohol Concern says there were 46,992.
The difference between 900 and 46,992 is non-trivial to put it mildly.
To take another example from my neck of the woods, Alcohol Concern reckons there were 128,922 alcohol-related hospital admissions in West Sussex in 2012/13. The ONS says there were 14,210.
Alcohol Concern reckons there were 52,092 admissions in Brighton and Hove. The ONS says there were 4,640.
Alcohol Concern says there were 48,745 alcohol-related hospital admissions in Westminster. The ONS says there were 3,360.”
One respondent to Snowdon's original post thinks he sees how, short of making the whole thing up, the figures might have been manipulated.
“The simple truth is that the 9.6 million figure is the combination of Hospital Admissions and A&E Attendances and Outpatient Attendances. It's the equivalent of adding apples, paper clips and spiders together and claiming that the total is a measure of fruit!
In your West Sussex example, Chris, they actually counted 14,159 hospital admissions in the total of 128,922, so not far off the ONS figure (and as likely to be accurate as ONS). This number was dwarfed, though, by 73,672 A&E attendances and 42,090 outpatient attendances!
Having worked with NHS statistics for my whole working life, I can assure you - and Alcohol Concern - that no-one in the NHS would ever dare to add inpatient and outpatient (A&E is outpatient too) statistics together. Once would be a terrible mistake, to repeat it would be a sacking offence. To place such stated numbers in the public domain - e.g. on a “nifty” interactive web-site - is tantamount to fraud; plain and simple.”
But on following the story around other websites which bothered to probe, I found something even more interesting. The pertinent details are these:
From the Alcohol Concern website ( ) :
"The Alcohol Harm Map, produced by Alcohol Concern in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck Ltd. The purpose of the map is to reveal the real harm and cost of alcohol at a local level, so that local authorities and local health providers can ensure that alcohol prevention and treatment services are available to those with drinking problems..."
From Lundbeck's website , one of their UK products is called Selincro (generic name nalmefene).
And from the website of NICE , the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (the government agency which recommends which products should be used by the NHS):
"NICE has been asked to appraise nalmefene for reducing alcohol consumption in people with alcohol dependence in a single technology appraisal. The expected date of publication of the appraisal is November 2014."
The UK government turning a blind eye to a moral panic started by one highly questionable quasi-governmental agency in order to expedite the (no doubt over-priced) sale of a dubious pharmaceutical product which a more rigorous quasi-governmental agency cannot be bullied into licencing fast enough?
Well, well.

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