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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Bad statistics and binge drinking
Valerie Pegg, statistician
According to official definitions, the alcohol units from wine with dinner make Magazine reader and statistician Valerie Pegg a "binge drinker". It's just one area where, in this personal viewpoint, she objects to the selective use of statistics.

Let's make my bias quite clear - I like a drink, and I hate bad statistics. So figures showing that alcohol use is out of control in the UK makes me see red - and it's not that glass of claret in front of me.

For example, reports that alcohol sales are soaring, because sales increased by 5% between 1999 and 2004.

A young woman slumped in a city centre
Is the UK a nation ill with drink?
Like most statistics quoted in isolation, that figure means nothing. It doesn't even prove we're drinking more, because there are numerous factors which it doesn't take into account. Maybe we're buying more wine and beer instead of making it at home (home brewing isn't included in the figures).

Another often-ignored factor is that many things get larger with time, simply because there are more people around. The UK population grew from 58.7 million to 59.8 million over that same period, about a 2% increase.

Factor in the increasing age of the population - there are more over-18s, and therefore more drinkers - and maybe we haven't even bought much more per head since 1999.

And that year - 1999. Always a good idea, when you're using statistics, to choose your baseline year carefully. Wonder how much increase there's been since 2000, for example? I can't trace that statistic - it's not in the original report.

But just think about it... all that partying to see in the new millennium. Could it possibly be that there hasn't been that big an increase in wine sales between 2000 and 2005? There may even have been a decrease, now party season is over. Either way, not much of a headline-grabbing figure to accompany articles about our supposedly alcohol-fuelled culture.

Falling down

Binge drinking. Another good statistic-torturing subject, because very few people look at the numbers behind stats. Personally, I'd define binge drinking as deliberately drinking enough to lose self-control and self-respect.

But surveys take binge drinking to mean necking twice the recommended maximum for a day in a single session. Sounds reasonable, but look at the figures behind it.

Genna Bush with wine glass at dinner
A small glass of wine is one unit
The recommendation is that women drink 14 to 21 units a week - set intentionally low, because that amount will do little harm. And it's a weekly target, with the assumption that you don't drink every day. So dividing it by seven to get a daily figure is a bit of a nonsense. Then multiply by two - a completely arbitrary figure, as far as I can tell - and hey presto, binge drinking.

Therefore, last Saturday, I had quite a session. My glass of sherry before dinner accounted for 1.5 units, then a shared bottle of a rather nice Rioja added another 4.5 units to my total. That's six units in total - a binge, according to these figures.

Which is not to say that as a nation, our drinking habits are beyond reproach. Perhaps, like the French and Germans, we could do with cutting down. And alcohol-fuelled violence is a problem, as is the number of people making themselves ill with drink.

But please, there's no need to abuse statistics in order to persuade me.


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