One of the enduring themes of this blog has been that the smoking ban was not only objectionable in its own right, but that it was also likely to be used as a template for further restrictions on alcohol, soft drinks and “unhealthy” foods. This “slippery slope” argument was widely dismissed by people claiming that smoking was very much a special case and there was no way the principle would be extended into other areas of life.
However, the evidence to the contrary has steadily mounted up, and it seems that it has at last reached the point where it has jolted hipsters out of their complacent torpor. The Observer reports that Jared Brown, of craft gin distiller Sipsmith, has suddenly cottoned on to the threat to his business from graphic health warnings and plain packaging.
“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he demands. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”And Christopher Snowdon, who has assiduously pushed home the message over the years, makes the point that tobacco restrictions have acted as a “gateway drug” to extend the principle into other areas.
“It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first,” said Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. “The debates around the tobacco advertising ban 15 years ago were that this was not a precedent, it will never happen with anything else, and yet last week the there were health campaigners saying the same thing should happen with alcohol.”Of course, what applies to craft gin will equally apply to craft beer, and any other area of the food and drink market dependent on innovation and disrupting existing business models. I’ve been arguing on Twitter with one or two blinkered brewers who still fail to see the connection, but basically, if the same restrictions on advertising, promotion and packaging that apply to tobacco were extended to beer, they wouldn’t have a business. I’ve made a note of their names and will do my best to avoid their beers as they are likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
The key point about advertising restrictions is not that they are particularly effective in reducing consumption, but that they serve to stifle or entirely eliminate innovation and new product introduction, in effect ossifying the market. It would now be absolutely impossible to introduce a new legitimate cigarette brand. Their primary aim is denormalisation.
I believe it has now been dropped, but in its early days CAMRA had a policy of opposing the “mass-market” advertising of alcoholic drinks. It was believed that, without advertising, drinkers would stick to tasty local beers rather than heavily promoted national brands. This always came across as somewhat patronising because, as I argued here, all the advertising in the world will only sell a bad product once, and people choose to drink Carling and John Smith’s not because they are dupes, but because they have different priorities from beer enthusiasts.
An advertising ban in the 1960s might well have retarded the rise of lager, but it would have done nothing to stop brewery takeovers, brand rationalisation and the replacement of real ale with keg. “A pint of Bloggs’s Bitter, please?” “Oh, the brewery have dropped that. It’s been replaced by Megabrew Extra Fizz.” And there would be nothing you could do about it. You couldn’t even find out except by word of mouth which pubs sold different products. In the absence of advertising, industry consolidation might have happened even more quickly as there would have been no means of independent brewers stressing the distinctiveness of their products.
Restrictions on advertising and promotion always serve to benefit established players at the expense of new entrants, as customers are forced to fall back on folk memory and what they ordered before. If the current tobacco advertising rules and display ban applied to alcohol, there would be no craft beers and no microbreweries, apart perhaps from pubs that brewed their own beer. And would even writing blogs or magazine articles about them be prohibited as a form of indirect advertising?