Cheap alcohol leads to violent crime, say ‘experts’. Where’s the evidence?

Stanley Cohen, the legendary criminologist and author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, once commented on ‘the unique dilemma of the moral entrepreneur who has to defend the success of his methods and at the same time contend that the problem is getting worse’. The eager activist cannot afford to solve the problem he is paid to tackle – but nor can his methods be seen to fail too blatantly.

One problem that is manifestly not getting worse in Britain is violent crime. Every measure of violent crime has been in retreat almost continuously for 20 years. This is a dilemma for those who fretted about the effects of so-called ’24 hour drinking’ and it is a challenge to those who continue to fret about the ‘pocket-money prices’ at which alcohol is supposedly sold.

Year after year, the Office for National Statistics announces another drop in the rate of assaults, woundings and murder. Year after year, the news is spiked with revisionist history and dark warnings about the years ahead. Last year, for example, Cardiff University’s Violence and Society Research Group made the canny decision to preview its study of violence-related A&E admissions on the day before the Office for National Statistics published the official crime figures.

The Cardiff researchers found a decline in admissions and were not shy in putting forward their own explanation. Jonathan Shepherd, the group’s director, argued that violent crime had fallen thanks to stagnant wages and higher taxes on alcohol, the combined effect of which meant that ‘after decades in which alcohol has become more affordable, since 2008 it has become less affordable. For people most prone to involvement in violence, those aged 18 to 30, falls in disposable income are probably an important factor.’

While this is not totally implausible, it does not explain why violent crime had started falling dramatically after 1995, nor why it was still falling in 2004 when alcohol consumption was at a post-war high. Office for National Statistics data show a rapid decline in violence in the second half of the 1990s followed by a steady decline since 2000. This trend seems to have accelerated in 2013, albeit under a different counting method, but it is far from obvious that either the state of the economy or the alcohol duty escalator played much of a role.

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Despite the murky correlation, the Cardiff study had the effect of preempting the ONS data and ensuring that the fall in violent crime was reported from the perspective of alcohol control. As a strategy for co-opting good news, it worked very well.

So well, in fact, that they did it again last week. With the ONS figures due out on 23 April, the Cardiff researchers press released their own findings on 22 April, emphasising the affordability hypothesis and garnering headlines such as ‘Drop in binge-drinking leads to 10 per centfewer injuries due to serious violence’ (The Guardian).

In fact, we still have no idea what part, if any, alcohol played in the decline of violence-related A&E admissions and nor do the Cardiff team. Routine hospital data – which is all their research is based on – do not tell us whether victims of violence were drunk, let alone whether the perpetrator was drunk.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Shepherd was on hand to speculate and this time had a warning for politicians. ‘As we emerge from the economic downturn,’ he told the BBC, ‘we must ensure that the affordability of alcohol does not increase.’ The Daily Mail did an exemplary job of turning good news into bad. Under the headline ‘Alcohol price warning over violence’, it quoted Shepherd saying that ‘alcohol in supermarkets is still far too cheap and we know that cheap alcohol increases consumption and then the harm that develops reflects consumption levels’.

It seems that alcohol is simultaneously cheap and unaffordable depending on the argument being made at any given time. Bear in mind that the decline in A&E admissions reported by the Cardiff group occurred in the same year that George Osborne froze spirits duty and cut beer duty, which the Institute of Alcohol Studies (an offshoot of the UK Temperance Alliance) insisted would put ‘even more pressure on public services and frontline workers’. And speaking of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, they say that alcohol is more affordable than it was in the 1990s when alcohol consumption and violent crime were at higher levels than they are today.

Confused? You’re supposed to be. The following day, the ONS published the official crime data. Crime either rose or fell last year depending on which newspaper you read. The Telegraph ran with ‘Crime rises for first time in more than a decade’ while the Guardian went with ‘Crime rate in England and Wales falls 7% to lowest level since 1981’. The Telegraph story was based on recorded crime whereas the Guardian referred to the British Crime Survey.

The latter is generally regarded as being the most reliable and the decline in violent crime it reported is supported by the Cardiff research on A&E admissions. According the ONS, ‘the number of violent incidents has decreased by 66% from the peak of violent crime in the 1995 survey’.

This is joyous news, but where does alcohol come in? The ONS doesn’t mention drinking at all – it merely notes that last year’s fall in the crime ‘continues the long-term downward trend seen since the mid-90s’. The only statistic that relates to alcohol is the estimate that around 50 per cent of those who are victims of violence believe that their attacker had been drinking, but this estimate has remained roughly the same for many years.

It is possible that making alcohol less affordable helped to reduce violent crime but, despite the hype, none of the data released last week give us any indication of whether this is so. The Cardiff research merely tells us how many people went to A & E as a result of violence and the ONS figures merely tell us how many people reported that they had been victims of violence.

Everything else is speculation. It is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to say that less affordable alcohol led to less violence. It merely coincided with less violence, just as more affordable alcohol coincided with less violence a few years ago and higher rates of alcohol consumption coincided with less violence a few years before that.

Everything that has happened since 1995 has coincided with less violence and nobody is quite sure why. Irrespective of the facts, the idea that violence has temporarily fallen as a result of alcohol becoming less affordable – and that it will rise again unless higher taxes are introduced – had now been firmly planted in the public mind. A set of figures that have nothing to do with alcohol has been combined with another set of figures that have nothing to do with alcohol to create a story that is all about alcohol. That’s what you call seizing the narrative.