Saturday, 23 October 2010

Number of booze kids admitted to hospital falls to 0.103% - Alcohol Concern

I'm doing a Pete Brown.

Saturday mornings are always fun for telly addicts: bit of James Martin fooling around with other chefs on BBC1; luscious Nigella cooking something up for men of a certain age; and, what with the weekend generally being slow news-wise, a decent bout of activist-press-release-as-major-story syndrome.

The BBC carried on its midday bulletin a story based on a report from the perennial neo-prohibitionist's favourite, Alcohol Concern. According to their research, just under 13,000 children were admitted to hospital over 2008/09 in alcohol-related incid
ents. The cost of all this to the NHS came to a staggering £19m. Alcohol Concern's Don Shenker is quoted as saying drinking among youngsters is a 'huge problem'.

There are, as you might expect, several problems with the
report's coverage by the cut-and-paste maestros at BBC towers and the methodology used by Alcohol Concern to get their figures.

To begin with, even if you take the report at face value, it's tentatively good news - according to the BBC web
site, the number of under-18s admitted to hospital rose from 10,976 in 2002/03 to 14,501 in 2007/08 but - get this! - fell to 12,832 in 2008/09. This seems backed up by a trawl through the report (though they seem to divide data for 2007-09 by two). The Alcohol Concern message is clearly getting through, thank god. Trebles all round!

But taking it at face value would be a mistake.

First of all, and here I admit to being utterly subjective, I have a big problem with the classification, or understanding, of under-18s as children for the purposes of the report. Almost any alcohol-related hospitalisation under the age of twelve probably should set off alarm bells. But while many in Alcohol Concern consider it an abomination that teenagers may on occasion imbibe, it does happen and - when unsupervised - can lead to the odd mishap. Is that right? No. Should parents do all they can to prevent such mishaps? Yes. Does that mean they won't happen anyway? No.

Take an anecdotal example. My friend Andrew (I've changed his name, obviously) is from a nice family with a detached house; three kids, two cars, a summer b
arbecue and the most attentive and loving parents imaginable. Now Andrew, aged about 17, got himself in a right pickle with a bottle of vodka and ended up slumped outside a shop and needing his stomach pumped. This shit happens. Since then, he has been nothing but the most responsible drinker - even engaging in lengthy bouts of abstinence if he's working hard. I'm not saying that we should all have our stomachs pumped to teach us our boundaries - what I am saying is: a) most experimentation - even going too far and feeling the worse for wear for it - does not end up in hospitalisation; b) a one-off hospitalisation is not evidence of a drink problem.

On to more statistical terrain. Now I'm no Carol Vorderman, but that 12,832 figure did set me off to thinking about what percentage of under-18s that actually represents. A quick look at the
Office for National Statistics website says in that in 2009, roughly 1-in-5 in the UK were 16 or under, which comes to 12,358,400; those 19 or under accounted for 13,101,000 (unfortunately, a quick search doesn't yield an exact under-18 figure). So we can comfortably assume a rough figure of 12,500,000. This would mean that the percentage of children admitted to hospital in alcohol-related cases is...wait for it...0.103%.

That's right - 0.103%. Perhaps 0.103% too much, but I fancy that any sociologist passing by will confirm that a shocking state of affairs that affects only 0.103% of any given population is not a serious problem worthy of the label.

Finally, and this is the part I really like, how did Alcohol Concern calculate the £19m cost to the NHS and the 12,832 admissions figure?

The cost. Now this is based on an estimated price per incident, using 2007/08 data, of ambulance call-outs, hospital admissions and A&E attendances (and given the shaky nature of the last two of those, as I explain below, there could be major overlap there). It's all fairly weak stuff in the end - but the real shocker here is that ambulance data. In an examination of three ambulance trusts, they extrapolate nationwide to get 23,254 call-outs costing c.£4.6m.

Which three ambulance trusts did they look at? London, West Midlands and the North East.

I'm saying nothing more.

And the admissions? Well, given page four of the report solemnly opines that 'We have no way of knowing how many children and young people are attending EDs [emergency departments - A&E to you and me] due to alcohol', you'd have to salute their bravery in trying and, then, convincing the BBC that what they've written is gospel.

So let's have the report explain what they've done:

'Hospital Episode Statistics (HES), the national health statistics data source, is only able to provide data on ED attendances with a primary diagnosis of ‘poisoning (including overdose)’ of substa
nces that include alcohol. Between 2007 and 2009, 25,767 children and young people under the age of 18 attended an ED with this primary diagnosis. However this data is inclusive of all poisoning episodes (for example accidental ingestion of bleach) it does not allow for isolation of alcohol alone as a cause for attendance and is therefore of limited use.'

Divide by two and what do you get...? 12,883.5 (which is as close as dammit I can get to the reported 12,832). But of course, these admissions, not broken down by type of poisoning, do not tell us anything like a full picture regarding the impact of alcohol. Could be heroin; could be weed killer; could be anything.

What can we conclude from this? I don't want to give the impression that I do not care about the problem of kids drinking early, to excess, or in the absence of parental supervision. Such issues are evidently welcome and necessary components of any national debate about Britain's confused relationship with alcohol.

But that debate must be evidence-led and the statistics used should be bomb-proof. To be fair to the report, it highlights some of its own shortcomings as a piece of statistical analysis - but this has not stopped the organisation issuing a press release that is far less equivocal.

That the BBC laps it up so unquestioningly, and without any contrary voice in a debate between honest players with differing opinions, does not flatter its journalism.

Keen observers will notice I've decided - in the spirit of such reports - to illustrate this post with utterly irrelevant pictures of people having fun. As if to suggest: 'let's hope this revelry doesn't descend into mindless thuggery.'

1 comment:

Jeff Pickthall said...

Splendid post. Up with this we will not put.

I wonder what statistic-torturing fun they are planning for the New Year news?