Balance North East

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Balance North East was formed in 2009[1], and their director, since inception, is Colin Shevills. They are, in their own words:

...the North East of England’s Alcohol Office - and the first of its kind in the UK.

We are aiming to inspire changes to the way people in the North East think about and drink alcohol. We aren’t saying no to alcohol and we still want people to enjoy themselves. But we do want to encourage people to reduce their consumption – and reduce the impact that alcohol is having on our region[2].

They are wholly (with one possible exception) funded by the UK taxpayer:

Balance is funded by the North East’s Primary Care Trusts and also receives support from the North East Police Forces with a full time seconded Police Officer leading on the crime and disorder programme.

The organisation also brings together a number of other partners and stakeholders including:

  • Local authorities
  • Health services
  • Police forces
  • Emergency services
  • Voluntary agencies
  • Alcohol support groups
  • Treatment services
  • Prison and probation services[3]

They have already lobbied government for controls on alcohol, first by repeating the affordability myth:

Alcohol is too affordable. It is available for pocket money prices:

  • Alcohol in 2010 was 44% more affordable than it was in 1980, (NHS Information Centre Stats on Alcohol, 2011).
  • Alcohol is being sold for as little as 12p per unit in some parts of the North East (Balance Price Survey 2011).
  • A man can drink at his recommended daily limit (3-4 units) for just 48p and weekly limit for just £2.52 (Balance Price Survey 2011).
  • A woman can drink at her daily limit (2-3 units) for just 36p (considerably less than the price of a can of leading cola) or weekly limit for £1.68 (Balance Price Survey 2011)[4].

Then providing the usual solutions for the perceived problems:

  • Make it less affordable so poor people get poorer[5]
  • Make it less available, even though 24 hour licensing didn't actually bring in wholesale 24x7 sales[6]
  • Restricting promotion, which isn't part of slippery slope of the tobacco control template. Oh no it isn't[7]
  • Spending more tax-payer money on unneeded services[8]
  • More bully-statism in educating the proles[9]
  • Even more tax-payers money to fund groups like Balance North East[10]

They were even caught blatantly astroturfing[11] - of the type that had they been pro-tobacco, would have got them listed in ASH's list of 'Big Tobacco supporters.'

In July 2012, they held a conference in Durham[12], and one of the tweets coming from that conference was

CH[ Charles Holland - legal expert on licensing] new powers are a real opportunity to remove vertical drinking establishments and stag and hen parties #makeitlessavailable[13]

As Dick Puddlecote pointed out[13] since there are already laws in this country to deal with drunk (or even sober) troublemakers, it's troubling that a government funded astroturfing group feels the need to lobby government for more bully-statism.

Conflicts of Interest

UK Parliament - May 2012

In a submission to the Health Committee on "The Government's Alcohol Strategy" Balance North East stated:

While Balance welcomes the Government’s recognition that the industry needs to do more, we don’t believe it should be playing such a central role in helping to shape Government alcohol policy. We believe there is a fundamental conflict of interest when corporations with a legal obligation to maximise profits for shareholders are involved in shaping public health policy.[14]

This neatly ignores that alcohol-control bodies, such as Balance North East that are fully funded by the tax-payer, should also not be playing such a central role in helping shape Government alcohol policy, since it is Government lobbying itself, and is thus also in a fundamental conflict of interest.

They go further to state that:

Balance supports a minimum price per unit for alcohol as the best evidenced and most targeted way to address the problem of the affordability of alcohol (alcohol is 44% more affordable than it was in 1980).(1) The Sheffield study indicates that the introduction of minimum price would reduce consumption amongst harmful drinkers and young drinkers while having a minimal effect on those drinking within the guidelines.(2)[14]

This clearly presumes that

  • alcohol consumption is increasing in the UK and
  • that "something must be done."

Alcohol consumption has actually decreased in every year from 2004 (to 2011 for which the latest figures are available,) and overall has been fairly static since 1986. Claims that there would be a minimal effect on those drinking within the (laughably low) guidelines are easily shown to be false when one considers that as the price of the 'cheaper' brands approaches parity with that of the 'premium' brands, the 'premium' brands will naturally increase their prices simply to differentiate themselves from the 'cheap stuff.'

Next up:

In a survey carried out by Balance with 244 landlords across the North East, over half had seen a decline in business in the previous year; 72% saw customers arriving later due to pre-loading; 72% would welcome legislation to address cheap supermarket prices; and 81% would support the introduction of a minimum price in the North East.(4)[14]

With (4) leading to "Public Perceptions Survey 2011—produced by Balance, North East of England Alcohol Office.", a no doubt - self-serving questionnaire with questions designed to elicit the responses Balance required. Neither the questionnaire itself, or the results, are available for public scrutiny. Onto the specific points made:

  • over half had seen a decline in business in the previous year

Not surprising since we've had the ongoing repercussions of both the smoking ban and the recession

  • 72% saw customers arriving later due to pre-loading

Or arriving later since they don't want to spend as much, or arriving later since they went to a different pub or any other number of reasons. I find it suspicious that all 176 out of 244 landlords cited pre-loading as the reason their customers were arriving later. Presuming of course that "one customer pre-loading out of all those arriving later who didn't" counts towards their final figure of 72%. We can't tell since we can't see the survey or the results.

  • 81% would support the introduction of a minimum price in the North East

Suspicious. "Would you like to see supermarkets have to adhere to a minimum pricing [so that their prices are more on a parity with pub prices]" would naturally elicit a "yes." Completely ignores the fact that pub prices have always been more expensive that supermarket/off-licence prices since pubs have overheads that the supermarket/off-licences either don't have or can cross-subsidise, such as labour, rates, energy bills.