Lies, damned lies, and the Institute for Economic Affairs

There is an issue of trust in our politics at the moment – and it’s a little more complex than you may think. For most of us it’s obvious that the way to win back trust is to simply stop lying to the public – but, taken another way, maybe the lesson is that we should lie more often?

It seems that the Institute for Economic Affairs have taken the latter lesson.

Some context: The IEA has long hated “Minimum Unit Pricing” – a policy we champion and a policy that took effect in Scotland in May 2018, which is aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm (both social and individual). There have been many articles written about this and this is not an article about that policy. Like most Liberals, I reviewed the evidence and came to what I believe is the best answer – and if the facts change, I will change my mind. I trust that other party members made the same effort and approached the debate in good faith.

Not so for the IEA. In a “Briefing Paper” published last week the headline “fact” was that, since Scotland did not see a drop in alcohol-related deaths over what England experienced, the policy as a whole was a failure (as they “warned”). Of course there is no mention that regularly consuming alcohol kills you over decades (a fact well-known now even to people outside of the medical industry), and that this is a disingenuous and fallacious argument.

They know this. Nobody with an interest in the subject could not know this. So we can only reason that they are out to deceive.

As a party we should turn away from so-called “think-tanks” that encourage the dissemination of disinformation over reasoned debate. I’m willing to reconsider my positions in light of new information, but this Trumpesque barrage of (expletive deleted by editorial team) should be called out – whether it supports our beliefs or not. It’s tempting to get in to the post-truth games but it’s entirely against our ideology, at it’s roots, and we should find one voice when denouncing it.

As Liberals, we should seek truth.

Editorial note: Please note that there is a rebuttal, to points made above, from a representative of the IEA in the comments thread below.

* James Belchamber is a member from Birmingham. He runs the justLiberals Discord, a social space for Liberals inside and outside of the party.

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  • David Allen 13th Apr '20 - 3:41pm

    The IEA which I know of is the International Energy Agency – a respected international organisation. I have the feeling that the “Institute of Economic Affairs” is trying to piggyback an impression of respectability by copying the initials.

  • I have long regarded Tony Benn’s five brief “democratic questions” as his best contribution to politics. When it comes to think tanks we could try a variation of “four questions to think about”. Who are you? Who pays for you? In whose interests do you operate? And, if need be, what would it take to abolish you?

  • Peter Martin 13th Apr '20 - 6:06pm

    I must admit I do have mixed feelings about so-called minimum pricing. If we want to discourage alcohol consumption we should simply tax it more. Just like we do with cigarettes and tobacco? What’s the problem?

    The Problem I have with the so-called Institute for Economic Affairs is that they choose a title which gives the impression of some quasi governmental organisation. They are just another independent right wing “think tank” and that’s all they are.

    They are entitled to their view like anyone else. Theirs, though, is just another opinion.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Apr '20 - 9:09pm

    13th Apr ’20 – 6:06pm
    Ethyl alcohol is needed for sanitisers, please do not waste it.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Apr '20 - 9:22pm

    James Belchamber | Mon 13th April 2020 – 2:45 pm
    The truth is buried in the statistics.
    Simply categorise the distilling of whisky as part of Food and Drink.
    Forget about the campaigns which led the USA to approve a constitutional amendment, known as Prohibition. As women took up axes and broke open barrels of many different drinks, criminals were smuggling Canadian whisky across the Great Lakes and the mafia were strengthened.

  • The Institute of Economic Affairs is a neo-liberal secretive front enabling Corporate interests to lobby politicians. It is funded by the alcohol, food and sugar industries. A ‘Research Fellow’, Christopher Snowdon, admitted the alcohol funding in response to a British Medical Journal article in 2014.

    In October 2018, Greenpeace found IEA was funded by BP, to gain access to ministers on issues ranging from environmental and safety standards to British tax rates. In May 2019 the British Medical Journal revealed BAT continued to donate to IEA.

    Danny Alexander, Malcolm Bruce and Christine Jardine lobbied the Treasury to cut spirit duties in 2015 so as to encourage consumption and help the Speyside distilleries. (Guardian, 18 March, 2015) -‘Scotch whisky makers – and Danny Alexander – raise a toast to. scotch-whisky-makers’ – ‘Duty cut could also boost LibDem election campaigns in the Scottish Highlands, where many of the prime whisky production territories are’. It didn’t.

    Has minimum pricing been effective ?……. 19 Jun 2019 – Alcohol sales in Scotland fell to their lowest level since records began in 1994 in the first year that ministers set a minimum price of 50p per unit.

  • I am trying to follow the logic of the contribution.
    Why is the motivation of those who either support or oppose a legislative measure relevant to a discussion on what results it has? Unless the legislation sets out the aims of a policy then we can only work on what actually happens. I have no idea how this can be done.
    The usual method seems to be to search for any changes and use the ones that look favorable to a particular argument.
    If that is what people want to do that is OK, but there is no reason why people should not use other bits of information to support their arguments.

  • James Belchamber 14th Apr '20 - 11:21am

    @Andy Mayer are you threatening legal action as a way to stifle criticism of your organisation?

    The data is accurate. It doesn’t support your colleague’s thesis. Anyone with a passing understanding of how alcohol kills people would know this. Why is this not acknowledged in the paper – lack of rigour?

    If I wrote a paper claiming that this policy works based on the (accurate) data that alcohol-related deaths have fallen, I’m sure you would have similar qualms – and you would be right to call it a deceptive analysis of the facts.

    I believe your organisation wrote this paper, in this way, in an intentional effort to deceive the public over the efficacy of minimum unit pricing. If not then I’m sure that you will be willing to correct the paper to ensure people are not misled.

    Either way a correction or withdrawal is due.

  • Phil Beesley 14th Apr '20 - 1:10pm

    Tom Harney: “Why is the motivation of those who either support or oppose a legislative measure relevant to a discussion on what results it has? Unless the legislation sets out the aims of a policy then we can only work on what actually happens. I have no idea how this can be done.”

    Some government laws or directives contain explicit ‘statements of intent’ which are intended to guide those enforcing laws.

    Courts of Appeal occasionally look back to statements made in Parliament to review what was intended when a law was agreed; this is a recent innovation.

    Maybe a lawyer could explain further.

  • @ James Belchamber

    You over reached, you repeatedly called individuals lairs on the basis that you have s different interpretation of certain data more generally and (I haven’t checked so assuming you are correct) found one inaccurate claim.

    Your response to criticism is “are you threatening legal action as a way to stifle criticism of your organisation?” A hint: you know when you are being threatened with legal action, it comes in the form of an explicit statement.

    If someone is wrong argue the facts, don’t try and play the victim. If you are as correct as you clearly believe then you should not have any issues and easily win the argument.

  • @ James Belchamber

    While I’m here perhaps I could point out another error I see too often in these circles. You assume that there is a “factual” interpretation of evidence and attribute malice to Snowden as his interpretation is different to yours.

    When I heard Snowden on the radio it was very apparent he was a libertarian (of some stripe). On this basis he will (and presumably his colleagues at the IEA) interpret based upon the valuation of negative liberty being very highly weighted. You obviously don’t share that view. This does not make him evil and you righteous or you evil and him righteous. Different people have priorities and will give weight to different factors accordingly.

    The people who hold certain values are attracted to work for those organisations who make assessments on the basis of similar values. You seem to see that those who agree with the likely conclusions and funnel funding that way as being the driver for the value system. As you clearly have a very negative view on one side try addressing your approach to a different group and see if you are still comfortable. Bodies which advocate for restrictions on negative liberty for greater public health benefits often receive money from public funds decided by public officials. Is this because the public officials are evil schemers out to enrich themselves by manipulating public policy to strip us of all our rights? No

    The truth is that different people have different systems of assessment and that can be reinforced by the company they keep. There are times when people will make logical or factual errors, those can be addressed. However, this world view which wishes to view those making different interpretations in the most uncharitable light is not good for public discord and it probably doesn’t do those who indulge in it much good either. Perhaps, if you want to be a positive contribution (and want to do yourself a favour in the process) perhaps try and think about someone else’s perspective and see how they could have reached their conclusions with good intent.

  • @ Martin

    I’m not even sure the IEA claim to not have an agenda. I clicked through to their website and the firsts sentence on their about section written in bold is:

    “The IEA is the UK’s original free-market think-tank, founded in 1955. Our mission is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.”

    A market based solution does not have to be as libertarian as the IEA is but I don’t think many reading it would not see their particular approach to analysing a problem.

  • James Belchamber 14th Apr '20 - 2:20pm

    @FSPeople I made very clear in the article that this is not about what side of the argument you come down on. I made no reference to funding either. I specifically targeted the misuse of data to argue a case that was clearly not supported by that data, and with people throwing about legal terms like “defamation” it’s worth being specific.

    It is a fact that the kind of drinking this policy is trying to reduce kills people over years and decades. It’s also well-known, and entirely reasonable to conclude that the author knew this when writing the paper. It is not a matter of opinion.

    While you’re here, welcome to our corner of the internet. How did you happen upon it?

  • IIRC, minimum pricing was partly sold sold on an *immediate* reduction in deaths, and there were reports around last September that deaths had plummeted in Glasgow since minimum pricing was introduced. This was immediately seized on by the SNP and numerous health lobbyists as evidence of it’s success, and prices should be hiked much further.

    It’s only right that the IEA exposed this as fanatical nonsense.

  • Christopher Snowdon 14th Apr '20 - 3:42pm

    In so far as this scurrilous blog post thinks it has a point to make, it is that no one should expect short term improvements in health outcomes from minimum pricing because “regularly consuming alcohol kills you over decades”.

    The very first sentence in the abstract of my briefing paper says: “Advocates of minimum pricing predicted that it would have an almost immediate impact in Scotland, with modelling forecasting 58 fewer deaths and 1,299 fewer hospital admissions in the first year.” These are the predictions made in the influential Sheffield University model which Mr Belchamber implies he has read (the model is, after all, the main evidence in favour of the policy). It is the primary evidence cited by the Scottish Government and its forecasts have been widely reported.

    Immediate impacts were clearly predicted and there are good reasons why a successful anti-alcohol policy would show results in the first year. In practice, we now know that hospital admissions rose in the first year and the mortality figures for the first eight months (which is all we have so far) show Scotland fared no better than England and Wales.

    “As Liberals, we should seek truth.” You really should.

  • @ Martin “What is David Raw’s point ?”

    Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) is caused by damage to the liver from years of excessive drinking. Years of alcohol abuse can cause the liver to become inflamed and swollen. This damage can also cause scarring known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the final stage of liver disease.

    There were 7,551 deaths registered in the UK in 2018 that related to alcohol-specific causes, lower than the previous year’s 7,697 deaths but still the second highest since the time series began in 2001.

    I was lucky to have a liver transplant (not alcohol related) in 2011. I spent three months before the op in hospital – and witnessed people I had talked to being wheeled out after dying from alcohol related liver disease. Not a happy sight…… some very nice people amongst them.

    What’s your expertise and knowledge, Martin ? Or is it just an opinion ?

    Read the evidence and research on minimum pricing by Sheffield University…….. which presumably people like Christine Jardine choose to ignore.

    Jardine backs Scotch Whisky Association’s General Election … › jardine_backs_scotch_whisky_association_s…
    16 Nov 2019 – Edinburgh West Liberal Democrats, Christine Jardine, Lib Dem …

  • This article is strongly worded so it warrants an equally strong response.

    Either the author of this piece is ignorant of the Sheffield study he *must* have read or he is caustically denouncing said study and as such the basis for the woeful minimum pricing policy in Scotland.

    Why is this the case? For the simple reason that the crux of this attack on the IEA piece is that it (assumedly wilfully) misrepresents the framing of this policy impact on the short term when the impact will only become known over the long term. A sensible sentiment, but does it apply here?

    Absolutely not. Because the Sheffield study, again, the very basis of the policy, predicts an immediate lowering of alcohol related deaths and hospital admissions in the first month. this is a bold, but resolute, prediction and therefore is an excellent indicator of the reliability of the study. Unfortunately, since minimum pricing, Scotland has seen no impact on drink related morality and a rise in drink related hospital admissions.

    Everyone can be wrong, but the author of this piece goes further than being wrong. On the basis of his own ignorance or misunderstanding he accuses Christopher Snowdon of disseminating misinformation. Shocking, really, because Snowdon is very soundly exposing serious concerns about minimum pricing.

  • James Belchamber 14th Apr '20 - 5:51pm

    Another thing worth noting: the “paper” compares the Sheffield study-predicted alcohol-RELATED deaths to the ONS statistics for alcohol-SPECIFIC deaths. This difference is addressed both in the study (3.3.2 “A note on terminology”) and on the ONS website (10. “Strengths and limitations”), so is fully understood by anyone who did their due diligence before referencing.

    I wonder if this one is more evidence of intent to deceive or simply ignorance of the terms, but surely this also demands a correction (or withdrawal)? Either way, this paper is so full of holes it would serve more use as a sieve.

  • David Allen 14th Apr '20 - 6:07pm

    David Raw said: “Has minimum pricing been effective ?……. – Alcohol sales in Scotland fell to their lowest level since records began in 1994 in the first year that ministers set a minimum price of 50p per unit.”

    Right, so whatever minimum pricing did or did not do for health, it sure reduced the turnover of the alcohol industry – which funds the IEA. I’d call that “effective”. So would the alcohol industry, no doubt!

    Lobbyists are ubiquitous, and they are paid to use every trick in the book to mislead the public. Wht do I make such a sweeping generalisation? Because, when a commercial organisation knows that what it is selling is in fact good for its consumers, it doesn’t bother engaging dodgy lobbyists. Instead, it finds real scientists, or other respected experts, who will be happy to endorse the truth.

  • Well, well. We’ve certainly stirred up the ever vigilant in the defence of their vested interests lobby. They’ll be telling us cigarettes are good for clearing the chest next.

  • I wouldn’t worry about minimum pricing. The economy is taking such a beating, so many business are being trashed, and unemployment is going so high no one will be able afford alcohol. Personally, I’m sick of mostly retired people dreaming up ways to make younger people’s lives more miserable and more expensive. Does a drop in alcohol sales actually mean the world is a better place? What will it do to illicit drug use. No wonder some people are so in favour of the lockdown. They probably wish the country was always like this all the time. Why can’t people be sensible and go to work to and come home at night and have some cheese on toast and watch the BBC. Why do they have to have parties and go out and misbehave and do things I don’t approve of. Perhaps because the whole world is not in their 70s or 80s.

  • Dilettante Eye 14th Apr '20 - 10:11pm

    I don’t know if the IEA can be trusted or not, but for sure I haven’t read anywhere that consuming alcohol is safe. Indeed everyone acknowledges that consuming alcohol in excess is a certain route to poor health and likely early death. So, the main argument seems to be around Minimum Pricing of Alcohol in Scotland, and whether it works.

    The pertinent question has been asked : “Has minimum pricing been effective ?……. Alcohol sales in Scotland fell to their lowest level since records began in 1994”

    But we are also informed : “Unfortunately, since minimum pricing, Scotland has seen no impact on drink related morality and a rise in drink related hospital admissions.”

    So alcohol sales in Scotland have fallen, but alcohol consumption is much the same.?

    Has anyone thought to check whether the sales of alcohol just over the border in England have risen by the same amount as the fall of sales in Scotland, in which case minimum pricing in Scotland was a complete waste of time?

  • Vodka is a party drink. I t s the same strength as whiskey, Sambuca, another party drink, same strength and so on an so forth. I think minimum pricing is paternalism and the side product of having an aging population.
    Also as I live on my own, having not had a face to face conversation with my friends or family for nearly four weeks my interest in listening to medical advice is at virtually zero. l’ m actually pretty bitter and angry about watching my social life disintegrate, my money go and then hearing more talk of another cost being placed on something else, I quite like. I like having money, I like going out, I like having a drink, I like seeing friends, I love my family and I don’t feel guilty or selfish about any of it.

  • Dilettante Eye 15th Apr '20 - 9:19am

    “why someone from, say, Perth, would drive to Carlisle to pick up slightly cheaper rough booze is beyond me.

    No. You’re right, no-one is going to drive over for a bottle of Baileys

    However if you have a transit van and a few local friends each giving you a £50 order for some rough booze!, a round trip into England in a van can be a worthwhile day out?

    If Scottish alcohol sales have fallen but consumption hasn’t, it figures that some black market enterprise is filling the gap from somewhere?

    But for sure, minimum pricing in Scotland is a failure, indeed any 12 year old, county-lines delivery boy, could have pointed out the major flaw in the plan. It’s a pity that too many ‘smart’ politicians are utterly clueless when it comes to basic human nature.

  • @Dilettante Eye “The pertinent question has been asked : “Has minimum pricing been effective ?……. Alcohol sales in Scotland fell to their lowest level since records began in 1994”

    But we are also informed : “Unfortunately, since minimum pricing, Scotland has seen no impact on drink related mor[t]ality and a rise in drink related hospital admissions.”

    So alcohol sales in Scotland have fallen, but alcohol consumption is much the same.?”

    You’ve drawn the wrong conclusion, which is obvious.

    – Total sales have fallen – social drinkers buy less.
    – No impact on mortality, admissions to hospital increase – hardened drinkers carry on much as before

  • Dilettante Eye 15th Apr '20 - 11:39am


    The only conclusion I have drawn is that minimum pricing has failed, which is evidently true.

    How the market for quality social booze, and rough hardened booze functions is anybody’s guess, but Scottish drinkers are still getting what they need/want? The black market is obviously working well.

    Fact (oft ignored by politicians!), Human nature will always find ways around the law to get what the market wants.

    There are numerous ways to get around this. If I were doing this, I would set up somewhere in Scotland, The Rough Booze & a packet of Crisps Club, set up as a members only club.
    There are numerous drink wholesalers across the UK, and one in particular has distribution points in Tyne & Wear and Glasgow. So I would register the ‘club’ account with the Tyne & Wear branch, and invoice (at wholesale prices), my ‘club’ booze purchases in England.

    The wholesalers might truck my order from Tyne and Wear, or logistically decide to use their Glasgow distribution point. Frankly, I don’t care.
    All I know is that my paid up club members can collect their booze (plus 1 packet of crisps), from my garage lock up in Scotland, which has an invoice registering purchase of the booze in England.

    Meanwhile, oblivious to the reality, well heeled Scottish politicians are raising a glass of McGuigan’s reserve Shiraz, to the ‘success?’ of their minimum pricing policy on the poor?

  • @ James Belchamber
    “I made no reference to funding either”
    Quite right, I expressed my self poorly in the second paragraph there. It is more a general comment but was written as if directed at you personally. It is a point I have found frustrating and we see it David Raw’s comments here but you see it a lot in response to “right wing” (in this case meaning small government/low tax) think tanks a lot from the over excitable, there is some of it directed towards left wing think tanks but it is normally done in a slightly different way.
    The fact is that addressing the specific analysis and any errors or factual inaccuracies is what should be done.
    I’m not as convinced by “I made very clear in the article that this is not about what side of the argument you come down on.”
    I would note that despite your claimed neutrality you are assuming malice on the part of the person on the other side of an issue suggest you are not as neutral as you seem to believe you are:
    “I wonder if this one is more evidence of intent to deceive”
    I’m not concluding either way on a policy, despite being sceptical of any simple sounding answer to problems which are likely to be immensely difficult (and expensive) to solve. However, I wonder why an extreme negative view of someone holding a different position helps.
    I’m not new to these parts I drop in every few months (and have done for several years) to see if there is anything interesting being discussed. I generally don’t find more regular consumption particularly healthy, as the negativity has always been there but has been ramping up, as it is everywhere in politics.

  • Robin Bennett 15th Apr '20 - 5:41pm

    In the disastrous Holyrood election of 2011, the Lib Dems were reduced from 17 seats to 5 ( figure from which we have yet to recover). At that time the Lib Dems, regrettably. and the Tories, unsurprisingly, opposed the SNP plan for minimum pricing, despite the fact that it had the overwhelming support of the medical community. But when the Bill came before Parliament in 2012 both parties decided to support it. And Alex Cole-Hamilton in the current parliament proposed that the minimum price be 60p per unit rather than 50p

    It took six years after Royal Assent for the legislation to come into force because of a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association. The challenge, which supporters of the Act found frustrating and thought disgraceful, went from the Court of Session to the Court of Justice of the EU before being returned to the Court of Session. Finally, in 2017 the UK Supreme Court judged the legislation to be

    “a proportionate means for achieving a legitimate aim”.

    One may wonder why the Scotch Whisky Association opposed it, given that the unit price of a standard size bottle of whisky (already taxed per unit at more than beer and cider) would at £14 be not a lot more than was being charged at the time. So it should increase whisky sales as a proportion of the alcohol market, because it led to sharp increases in some cheap lagers and beers and, above all, cider. The reason must be that the SWA is dominated by multi-national companies for whom whisky is only a part of their range of products. Diageo, for example, owns Guinness, These companies must be pleased that the legal challenge resulted in delay and financial advantage to them, even if it meant death for more heavy drinkers

    The reason why taxation is not employed is simple: the Scottish Parliament has no power to impose excise duties, and the coalition government in Westminster showed no interest in the policy, though David Cameron did mention it. As a result there has been an estimated windfall to retailers estimated in 2012 at up to £125 million per annum. Happily, this has meant corner and rural shops can now compete with supermarkets on price.

    As to the effect of the policy, when the Russian Federation introduced alcohol control measures including minimum pricing in 2005, male alcohol deaths dropped by about 20% over the next five years. Let’s wait five years for a firm indication as to whether the experts were right.

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