Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A weak argument

Something I’ve been hearing more often recently is that beer should be given more favourable tax and legislative treatment than other alcoholic drinks because it is “a low strength product”. Well yes, of course it is, but consumers generally make up for that by drinking larger quantities of it per glass. People don’t drink 4% bitters out of wine glasses, they drink pints.

There is a good argument for setting alcohol duties so that the actual purchase prices of the main product categories work out roughly the same in terms of pence per unit, which the current alcohol duty regime in the UK, whatever you may think of its absolute level, broadly does. The counter-argument that duty should be charged on a strict per unit basis would give an advantage to cheap spirits with a short maturation period, which could lead to adverse wider consequences.

But, even though I’m very fond of the stuff, overall there’s no real reason why beer deserves special favour. It’s undoubtedly responsible for more alcohol-related disorder than any other category of drinks and, while spirits are probably the favoured tipple of the true problem drinker, I’ve come across a few beer-drinking alcoholics in my time, and plenty of others whose level of beer consumption was clearly doing their health no good. If you had to pick out the alcoholic drink that, in a UK context, was least harmful in terms of both public disorder and long-term health problems, it would be wine.

What is more, one particular category of beer – super-strength lagers – has a very strong association with problem drinking. They’re entirely different, of course, from Old Tom and Duvel and American double IPAs and weird shit produced by BrewDog and sold in stuffed polecats, even if they’re the same strength. But to the health zealot, one 9% beer is much the same as another, even if it costs twice as much to buy.

This whole line of argument is doomed to failure as it is accepting the terms of debate constructed by the health lobby. “Our sort of alcohol isn’t that bad, really” doesn’t cut much ice. And, now that the line that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption” is increasingly gaining traction, it is blown out of the water. Best, surely, to defend both beer and pubs in robust terms for what they actually are.

It’s much the same as the rose-tinted bleating about the benefits of community pubs. As I said in the post, most pubs, even very good ones, don’t really qualify as “community pubs” in the way the term is meant, and the vision that is conjured up of people sitting around drinking their regulation one-and-a-half pints of 2.8% pisswater while discussing ways of raising money for disabled kids bears little relation to what goes on in real-world pubs.

6 comments:

  1. Community pubs existed prior to 1997 in my world. Many pubs had the old boys in the corner the couples out for a stress break and a few youngsters that behaved themselves because of the first two groups.
    Change to the new communtity pubs. No old boys a few couples with screaming kids and often no youngsters.
    A monumental cock up.

    ReplyDelete
  2. To me, it is all in what is meant by 'problem drinking'.

    and the vision that is conjured up of people sitting around drinking their regulation one-and-a-half pints of 2.8% pisswater while discussing ways of raising money for disabled kids bears little relation to what goes on in real-world pubs.

    I don't know anyone who would want to drink in a pub like that. I think what is meant is a pub that serves the local community - all of it - in a safe and peaceful way. A pub where people look after and look out for each other without giving out if you go over the regulation limit for the evening. A place where incapable drunkenness is very much discouraged but where no-one minds people getting a bit tipsy by the end of the evening and in fact encouraging it. A place where there are a wide choice of different ales and snacks, where people can smoke, where people get together. That sort of place.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I know that's what the phrase means to you and me, Paul.

    However, it does have to be pointed out that there are many very good pubs that don't really fall into that category, and in any case it's not going to cut much ice with the health lobby who regard drinking two pints of bitter at a sitting as "hazardous drinking".

    ReplyDelete
  4. True; I mean, there are many branches of JDW that sell some very good local real ales cheaply (£2.20 a pint - the pints of Hawkshead Windermere Pale the other day at Southport was a highlight) and with reasonable food for the price. OK, it doesn't set the world alight, but it does a job. Cask ale while out and about for a reasonable price. Make sure you check out the nature of the JDW to see if it's safe enough first though!

    Same with the town centre real ale houses - great for some really good beers and usually has more atmosphere than JDW but it doesn't have the 'community' feel because a huge amount of the people drinking there will be transient folk - businesspeople, people on holiday with perhaps a few locals.

    No, community pubs are a much more distinct category. I suppose there are some very good community pubs where real ale is not sold, but I must imagine that a huge amount of them have been dying out?

    And I suppose it also depends what is meant by 'community' - community pubs could be exclusionary, rather than inclusive.

    And I agree with you above about what you say - beer and pubs shouldn't get special treatment. Because it then opens the way for special punishment too.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Curmudgeon: If you had to pick out the alcoholic drink that, in a UK context, was least harmful in terms of both public disorder and long-term health problems, it would be wine.

    Oddly enough, the reverse is almost true in Australia with their cheap 'box wine'. I was talking to a friend of mine in Australia and she was saying that inexpensive box wine is the main drink of choice for the local chavs after pale lager.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It’s undoubtedly responsible for more alcohol-related disorder than any other category of drinks

    Based on what evidence? The people I see causing trouble down the pub may have had a few pints but they would be a lot more in control of themselves if it wasn't for the chasers, "jagerbombs" and various sugar based "shots" that accompanied those pints.

    And speaking as an unfortunate parent of a teenager, I know that the next generation are NOT getting drunk on beer - vodka & rum are their drinks of choice.

    ReplyDelete

Comments, especially on older posts, may be subject to prior approval. Bear with me – I may be in the pub.

Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man.

Any obvious trolling, offensive or blatantly off-topic comments will be deleted.

See this post for some thoughts on my approach to blog comments. The comment facility is not provided as a platform for personal attacks on the blog author.