Monday, 16 July 2012

How low can drinkers be pushed?

The House of Commons health select committee has come out with a predictable report claiming that the alcohol industry is “drinking in the last chance saloon” and should face much tougher regulation unless it cleans up its act. They repeat the familiar canard about beer being sold “cheaper than water” and also say that “Britain's ‘alcohol problem’ has become so entrenched that drastic action – which would also include an end to sponsorship of sporting events – is required to protect children and teenagers.” Which is rather odd when you consider that per capita alcohol consumption has been steadily falling for eight years.

One point they make is that reducing the strength of some premium lagers by 0.2% ABV is no more than a token gesture. Maybe it is, but in a competitive market there must come a point when such strength reductions start to encounter consumer resistance, especially if not everyone moves at once.

I’m not normally a buyer of the mainstream premium lagers, but I wonder whether even now there is an effect of some customers rejecting 4.8% Stella in favour of competitors like Heineken that are still the full 5%, or even the 5.6% Polish brews like Tyskie and Zywiec. There’s no law against brewing 5% lager, and if the beer-weakening trend continues it must be likely that sharp-eyed niche producers will seek to muscle in on the market.

And this is why I fear that in the future we will see further tiers of additional beer duty brought in, with a steep hike kicking in well below 5%, and possibly even government-mandated standard strength categories. This would of course impact on many premium ales as well. If you want beer in the 5-6% strength category, you now have much more choice amongst the PBAs than amongst the lagers.

It’s also predictably disappointing that the focus of strength reductions is always placed on beer and cider, never on wine or spirits. Indeed, with spirits, EU law prevents them being sold at below 37.5% ABV.

Edit: something else I can see happening is the government pressurising the drinks industry to set a target for a reduction in the average strength of beer and cider produced in the UK.

8 comments:

  1. Of course none of these proposed restrictions will apply to MPs, drinking in their subsidised bars in the House of Commons!

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  2. They don't apply to me either, brewing and distilling in my garage.

    In fact, this is great. As it goes on, I'll be able to increase my markup and profit on the back-alley sales, whilst selling to kids without having to mess around with all that "ID check", "Tax", "quality control" or "duty".

    Thanks HoC Select Committee, you've just made me a millionaire.

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  3. It is particularly annoying that it is always beer and cider that is targeted. Of course there are no alcoholics who drink wine or spirits.

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  4. How come all of us can see, but they can't, that your problem drinkers will just switch to wine or spirits?

    My local Asda has wine at £4 a bottle. Seeing that a pint is heading towards £3, those who merely want the effect rather than the pleasure of drinking, will just conclude the extra 25% in cost is more than compensated for by the fact that in alcohol terms a bottle of wine probably equals 3-4 pints of beer.

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  5. They just love that salami-slicer, don’t they? Why on earth are they starting on that old chestnut – sports sponsorship? If we really did have an alcohol problem (which we don’t) then they could stop it at a stroke by raising the legal drinking age to 21, or even 25 – a 16-year-old might just pass for 18, but there’s no way they’d have a hope in hell of passing for 25. If each and every one of our town centres was full of rolling drunks a la “Police Camera Action” every Friday and Saturday night (which they aren’t) then they could avoid the problem by disallowing any new drinking establishment from opening up within, say, half a mile of an existing one, so you’d only get the turnout from one pub in any location at closing time, rather than the turnout from six or seven. If strong beers really were the major cause of drunkenness and loutish behaviour (which they aren’t) then they could simply pass legislation disallowing any beer to be sold at more than a watery 4% - or less if they were really concerned. And if they were concerned that people would start drinking “chasers” or adopting spirits or wine as a tipple instead of beer, then they could ban establishments which sold beer from selling any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

    None of these are nice scenarios, and they certainly aren't ones that I'd like to see, but they are all things which “the authorities” could do – and, to be frank they probably would – if there was a real problem. The fact that they haven’t done any of them indicates that (a) the “alcohol problem” they keep batting on about doesn’t actually exist at anywhere near the scale they like to pretend, and (b) that the current moves to demonise alcohol come from powerful health-based lobby groups and "charities" (who, let's be honest, depend on there being some imaginary "alcohol problem" for their continued existence), rather than from those people in the front line, i.e. publicans or the police, who would be demanding such drastic measures if the problem, as presented, really existed.

    And, of course, there’s always that old thorn in the side that if they actually did any of the above and their imaginary problems thus magically melted away to nothing, the Exchequer would find itself without a whole heap of income that it’s got nicely used to getting year on year, thank you very much!

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  6. Whilst I agree with the premise that wines & spirits get off lightly in all this the problem for brewers and cider makers isn't limited to the single issue of strength.

    The pub trade, as a principal player in the sale of beer, is notorious for its inability to present a cohesive and effective voice for itself, so it faces a double whammy of oppobrium: from the health lobby and politicians looking for handy sound-bites; and from lazy mainstream media looking for newspaper sales.

    The former steadfastly refuse to do anything about the off-trade who continue to flout the much vaunted "Responsibility Deal" and guidelines on promotions etc and sell alcohol at dangerously low prices. The latter, for some reason known only to themselves, continue to subliminally influence opinion by reporting these issues, more often than not, with stock images of beer to "illustrate" their articles.

    But, as I said, the hospitality industry, does itself no favours either, for instance just take a look at the woeful example of Luminar in their recent "infommercial" on Channel 4's Undercover Boss - irresponsible drinks promotion at its worst.

    Personal responsibility doesn't stop with individuals, commercial entities have to step up to the plate and act responsibly ... no matter how attractive the economic arguments are for "deep discounting". Until the pub trade does that it will continue to be vulnerable to both the media and politicians ... irrespective of what type of alcohol they serve ... brewers and cider makers become almost collateral damage in the process.

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  7. As with tobacco - where draconian restrictions have been driven by that fake charity ASH, so it will be with Drink - driven by that other fake charity Alcohol Concern. And the taxpayer funds most of their campaigning and lobbying activities. And pays for the salaries of their CEOs. What fools we are.

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