Wednesday 20 July 2011

Keeping busy

I spent last week in Australia handling a bit of press around the work I've been doing with Matt Burgess and Brad Taylor on alcohol's social costs; I also presented at the Australian Conference of Economists's Dodgy Awards arguing the case for preventative health being the worst of the lot. I didn't feel at all bad about losing to Henry Ergas; I also booed loudest (the measure of victory) for the Australian debacle of a National Broadband Network.

Here's some of the Australian coverage:

Chris Kenny in The Australian:
Alcohol taxation is expected to a target for reform at the National Tax Forum in October and the Henry tax review said taxes on alcohol should be set to address "the spillover costs imposed on the community of alcohol abuse". Therefore, the estimates of those costs are a crucial element of the debate.

Health lobbyists are pushing for higher taxes on alcohol and have consistently said the costs to the community total $15bn, a figure from a 2008 paper by Australian academics David Collins and Helen Lapsley.

But the new study by Eric Crampton, commissioned by the National Alcohol Beverage Industry Council, says most of the negative costs of alcohol are borne by private individuals and the public costs total just $3.8bn, which is less than the $4bn raised by alcohol taxes.

David Penberthy in the Sunday Telegraph (Australian Edition):
In the UK, the term now being used by the health lobby is "passive drinking". It doesn't mean that a drunken colleague will walk past you at work drinks and suddenly you're putting your bare bum on the photocopier and singing Danny Boy. Rather, it's a way of tallying up every social cost from problem drinking and using that as the basis for a more muscular assault on alcohol.

Independent research being pushed by the alcohol and hospitality industries shows the social cost from problem drinking has been overestimated by around $10 billion.

It says many of the costs caused by alcohol (such as a shortened life span or an injury) are borne by private individuals, not the broader community, and argues the health lobby is wrong to count the money alcoholics spend on alcohol as a public cost, when the money is coming out of no one's pocket but the poor alcoholic.

When I wrote a column about the Cancer Council's declaration alcohol was a carcinogen, I received an interesting email from a psychologist at one of our better universities who had done a lot of work with a prominent cancer organisation. He wrote that, with the war against tobacco largely won, there was now a funding-driven obsession within the organisation he worked for to identify new sources of harm, even if the science was contestable.

"There is an army of people who sit there trawling through data sets and article data-bases trying to find links between cancer and just about everything (the latest is broadband and electrical devices!).

"On alcohol and cancer I can confirm that the evidence is flimsy and being grossly over-stated. Much of the evidence or risk-statements are based on risk-ratios, e.g., if you drink you are 30 per cent more likely to get cancer, but they often don't tell you that this might be one in 10,000 to 1.3 in 10,000! They fall victim to a sort of fallacy of extension in which it is assumed that, because people who drink a lot of alcohol have significant risks of alcohol, we all share part of this risk if we drink a bit of alcohol."

This fallacy of extension has reached Canberra. Health Minister Nicola Roxon should think long and hard before she throws her lot in with these no-fun prohibitionists who would treat us all like babies.
Nigel Hawkes at Straight Statistics:
Professor Eric Crampton of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand is presenting a counter-estimate to the Australian Conference of Economists in Canberra in a session devoted to the annual “Dodgy” awards, in which economists compete in arguing that their particular policy area is the dodgiest.
He’ll be arguing the case that preventative health suffers from the worst application of economic analysis to policy of any branch of economics. (His full argument appears in a paper co-authored with a colleague from the University of Canterbury, Brad Taylor, and Matt Burgess of the Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation in New Zealand.)
The $15 billion claim came from Professor David Collins of Macquarie University and Associate Professor Helen Lapsley of the University of Queensland, and relates to data for 2004-05. In New Zealand, similar methods have been used to calculate an annual cost of $4.8 billion – which, given the relative populations of the two countries, is even higher, per capita, than is Australia’s $15 billion.
Crampton says these figures are meaningless because they include costs drinkers impose on themselves – including the actual costs of buying their drinks – but exclude any figure for the enjoyment they might have derived from consuming them.
Note that the linked version is the paper as presented at the NZAE meetings three weeks ago; I'm cleaning the many typos and redundancies out of that version. The Straight Stats piece was picked up by Risk Blog (Swedish)

Me in the Canberra Times (Thursday)

Me at The Punch (the subeditor picked the headline).

Brad at Menzies House.

Judith Sloan is clearly a woman of refined and discriminating tastes.

Others: Andrew Starke at The Shout (Industry trade magazine).

I also hit the TV Ten news last Monday night and the drivetime show on ABC Canberra, as well as a few other radio bits for stations whose call signs dropped from my brain almost immediately.

Here's the presentation given at Canberra; I didn't have time to get to the Nudge slides at the end. Ah well.

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