A report from market research consultancy Mintel claims that people in Britain are drinking more than they think because of “stealth increases” in the typical strength of drinks. The implication is that drinks manufacturers are in some way subtly reformulating products to make them stronger, whereas in reality we have seen the strength of many drinks such as Stella Artois, Old Speckled Hen and Dry Blackthorn cider actually reduced.
In fact, though, what is happening is a change in the mix of drinks consumed, with people moving away from light German wines to richer, fruitier ones from the New World, and abandoning milds and weak bitters and lagers for more premium beers. And it’s disingenuous to suggest that drinkers don’t know what they’re doing – in fact a major reason for the demise of the old-style cooking lagers such as Skol and Heineken was making their very low alcoholic strengths public. In the 70s and 80s, standard draught Carlsberg was a mere 3.0% ABV. Brewers for many years campaigned against the publication of strength information as it would expose just how weak many of their products were.
Anti-drink campaigners are always going on about the need to provide information to consumers of alcoholic drinks, with the result that the back of a bottle now looks like the safety instructions for a nuclear power station, but of course one of the key pieces of information is the amount of alcohol actually in the drink, which inevitably some will use to choose stronger ones. Indeed this problem, if it is a problem, could be said to stem not from ignorance amongst consumers but from knowledge.
The report is also inaccurate in referring – as many others do too – to Britain’s “rising alcohol consumption”. While it is true we are drinking more than we did in the 1950s, as Gavin Partington of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association points out, since 2004 per capita alcohol consumption has actually been falling.
And a report like this does raise the question of whether the UK now has the greatest level of ill-informed anti-drink hysteria in the Western world. In European terms, we are well down the league of alcohol consumption, yet hardly a day goes past without some new scare about the dangers of drink.