Today's (or rather yesterday's) villains are the Daily Telegraph, with the story "Children drinking more than adult safe levels, official figures show." Thanks to Jeff Pickthall for sending me the article and for finding the actual data - he's very bullish about stuff like this.
Nowhere in the Telegraph article does it give you an actual percentage figure for the number of children who are doing what the headline claims they are doing. By any conceivable standards, that's just poor reporting. Incompetently poor. So why a professional journalist would do such a thing?
Before we answer that, it's important to say that the data seems reliable, with one caveat: it's a survey of 11-15 year olds, and there's a pretty huge difference between the attitudes, habits and behaviour of an 11 year-old and those of a 15 year-old. Sure, you’ve got to create your data breaks somewhere, but the Telegraph subhead about “Children as young as eleven are drinking two bottles of wine a week” is pretty disingenuous when you don’t have a breakdown of ages within the group. If 63% of all 11-15 year olds have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, I’m guessing that figure is several times higher for 15 year olds than for 11 year olds. You simply cannot draw the conclusion from the data available that any child as young as eleven is drinking as much as the Telegraph claims. They may well be. But the data as it's presented does NOT say that they are.
(By the way - if it seems tedious that I keep referring to 11-15 year olds, it's because that's the age group of the survey - there's quite a difference between 'children' - which is what the Telegraph are claiming the story is - and 11-15 year olds - the oldest third of all children.)
But whatever, it’s still all under-age drinking, right? Which is of course wrong (because Liam Donaldson said so, without any research or data to back up his personal belief).
So what does the “official data” referred to by the Telegraph actually say? Unsurprisingly, even a cursory look suggests quite a different picture from the one the newspaper paints:
- The percentage of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk FELL from 55% in 2006 to 52% in 2008
- The percentage of 11-15 year-olds who have drunk in the last week FELL from 21% in 2006 to 18% in 2008
- The AVERAGE alcohol consumption for 11-15 year olds who have drunk alcohol is between 13 and 16 units – so not higher than safe limits for adults at all then. And as that's an average of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk (52%), simple maths tells you that the average for ALL 11-15 year olds must be half that - around 7-8 units.
- Why focus on the North East? Because that’s the region where 11-15 year olds have drunk more than anywhere else. It’s not typical of the country as a whole. 63% of 11-15 year olds have drunk alcohol there, compared with only 39% in London.
- The Telegraph correctly reports that ‘more than one in four’ 11-15 year olds in the North East have drunk in the last week. It doesn’t report that in London, this figure is only 12%. Everywhere else, it's between the two.
- In terms of average weekly consumption, girls marginally exceed the safe limit for women in five out of nine regions, by an amount that is within the standard margin of error quoted by statisticians. For example, in West Midlands girls drink an average of 14.2 units a week, with a standard range of error of 1.27, meaning they could be as much as 15.9 or as little as 12.5.
- In no area of the country do boys drink an average of more than 21 units – the recommended limit for men. The Telegraph headline is therefore factually inaccurate on yet another count. In the body of the article it states where teenage girls drink too much. It doesn't mention the figures for teenage boys because they don't fit with the story the newspaper is fabricating - so let me say once again, IN NO REGION OF THE COUNTRY ARE 11-15 YEAR OLD BOYS DRINKING MORE THAN THE 'SAFE' LIMITS FOR ADULT MEN.
Here is a serious and incredibly well-respected newspaper deliberately distorting NHS data to create a story that is significantly more alarming than the truth. The sub-editors have taken a story the journalist has already distorted, and written a headline and sub-head that is simply not true on several counts.
Why? Do they have their own agenda? Or are they just resorting to cheap, tabloid-style sensationalism? Anyone know?