Thursday, 21 May 2015

Booze, early death and bad reporting

My local paper, the Telegraph & Argus is generally pretty good but every now and then - especially on health matters - it produces some utterly shocking journalism. And today on the subject of early death it produced a corker.

The writer, Rob Lowson presents a more-or-less straightforward report on the last data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) on the matter of premature death. The HSCIC has totted up the gap between the age people die and the "potential" life expectancy - these figures show that Bradford is bottom of the pile in Yorkshire.

For once I'm not going to set off on a rant explaining how the age at which people are dying now is not a very good guide to the age at which people who are living will die. This should be utterly obvious to anyone looking at this data, so obvious that I can only assume that it suits the purposes of public health folk to pretend that current mortality rates are somehow an indicator of future mortality rates (or indeed a thing they call "health inequality").

Instead let's look at Rob's words - he explains the data and how it's calculated, explains the conditions that contribute (coronary heart disease, respiratory problems, cancers) and quotes - at some length - Bradford Council's Director of Public Health who talks about what the Council is doing and urges a degree of personal responsibility:

"Our campaigns also highlight the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their own health by making positive lifestyle choices like exercising regularly, drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, and stopping smoking."

Nothing here at all that suggests those lifestyle choices are the reason for the gap - indeed the Council's approach is to stress reducing poverty and improving environmental conditions such as warmer homes and cleaner air. It's all pretty fair and concludes with something of a success story - the reduction in rates of infant mortality in Bradford (which were among the UK's highest and merited the focus of public health efforts).

Given all this, I have no idea why the newspaper chose to illustrate the article with a photograph of a beer engine and a couple of guys drinking pints. A photograph with the caption - wholly unrelated to the article - "excessive drinking is one factor in Bradford's high early death rate". A bald statement based on no evidence and almost certainly not the main - or even a significant - problem. Bradford has one of the highest rates of abstention in the UK (23% of adults) and has rates of heavy drinking significantly below the English average (6.24% as compared to 6.75%). Just to complete the picture the city also has lower rates of alcohol-related violent crime that the English average.

It is lazy, sloppy newspaper reporting to pick on one factor - one unimportant factor - to illustrate a balanced report on Bradford's mortality statistics. And even worse to do so by picking on beer served in a public house as the source of the problem.


No comments: