Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Out of sight, out of mind

On my most recent visit to the supermarket I noted that, in line with new legislation, the tobacco displays in the kiosk had all been covered with retractable shutters. The claimed justification for this is so as not to expose children to the sight of tobacco marketing, but surely in practice the main impact will just be to make life more difficult for both people buying tobacco products, and those serving them. It will also give small convenience retailers, who don’t have to do the same until 2015, three years’ advantage in the market.

The regulations do apparently permit retailers to display a price list in plain type, but, as Chris Snowdon reports, initially this does not seem to have been properly understood, with some staff taking the line that they cannot confirm either the existence of a particular product, or its price, until the customer actually makes a purchase, which is plainly ridiculous and in violation of consumer protection law. Clearly one result of this will be to make getting information about the price and availability of tobacco products much more difficult. Ironically, for the first time the bootlegger will have an advantage over the legitimate retailer in the information he can provide. There’s a briefing paper about the regulations here.

Of course nothing similar can ever happen to alcohol sales. Well, maybe not in the next few years, but they’re already talking about plain packaging for alcohol even before it’s been brought in for tobacco. The exact order of events isn’t necessarily the same, but it becomes clearer with every passing week that tobacco control is being actively used and promoted as a template for alcohol control. And, once this has come in, the chances of introducing and developing a new brand are precisely zero – sellers will be entirely dependent on customers’ folk memory. So bye-bye beer tickers, bye-bye seasonal beers, and bye-bye to most microbreweries.

There is also an existing example of this in the Swedish state monopoly alcohol retailer Systembolaget. As Wikipedia explains, many of their outlets have now moved over the a self-service system, but in the past they were all Argos-style stores where you ordered your drinks from a catalogue and the assistant brought them to you from a storeroom round the back. This is shown in the illustration, although there are still a few bottles on display. Likewise, in a bar or restaurant you would order from a little printed sheet (or from memory) and the bar staff would fetch your drink, in a plain, unbranded glass, from a screened-off area.

Can’t happen here? Don’t be too sure...


  1. I don`t think there will be a problem for alcohol, if similar countries are anything to go by. UK has no state monopoly over alcohol and, in my opinion, never will do. It is not in our culture and would be so universally unpopular, no government would dare. In Canada, where I live now, various provinces have varying controls. The trend seems to be going the other way; The provincial governments are slowly relaxing their control as it simply inhibits free trade, customer choice, and fair pricing. Alberta is fairly fully liberalised now, and BC is making noises to go the same way.
    On the other side of the equation, tobacco laws are strict and, as in the UK, getting stricter. 19 years + is the legal age and all products are covered by doors\screens. My view is that Alcohol legislation is on a different track than tobacco. There is widespread derision at the new tax laws on alcohol, but there was barely a serious protest when smoking was banned in Pubs etc. The governments (and us) know that any smoking is bad for you, but drinking in moderation is not, so there is not the same moral argument for ever greater taxation and restrictions.

  2. Nope, the line from the health establishment is increasingly that there is "no safe level of alcohol consumption, only lower-risk levels", so that figleaf is rapidly slipping. And the point about Systembolaget is not that it is a state monopoly, but about the method of service. We now have a tobacco display ban in privately-run stores.

  3. I used to be against this sort of thing. But then I noticed all the fag brands are now budget brands.

    CAMCL therefore supports this for alcohol. Soon all booze will be cheap lager!

    Even if the cheap lager isn't so cheap. What do we reckon? 10 or 20 years away? I mean even the No1 consumer group in Europe is in favour of partial prohibition, so its gotta be quicker than the slow road of banning fags.

  4. Not a lot of point in a "carefully crafted premium ale made from the finest Amarillo hops and Maris Otter barley" if you can't even see the bleeding bottle, is there?

  5. Not really Mudge. CAMCL have been slow to see the long game. It's a young campaign and not as nuanced and sophisticated as CAMRA. We campaigned soley to keep lout cheap, whilst accepting other none lout beers ought to be cheap too. That was never gonna butter no parsnips. We have learnt from the sophistication of CAMRA to have policies that appear to have nothing to do with what we are campaigning for. We now campaign for this sort of thing in the UK, thinking it will result in all beer being Tesco Value Lager.

  6. Right Cookie. I'm fed up of this. It isn't "none" in this context. It is "non". Others note too please.

  7. Hmm, if I started imposing speling and grammer standards I'd lose most of my best commenters ;-)

  8. It's your fault Tand. You and the rest of the pong drinkers were the tax paying adults that accepted the dumbing down of educational standards that gave me such a piss poor education so I can neither spell nor "fink" right. It's why I buy everything advertised to me, whether Nike trainers, chicken nuggets or bottles of piss flavoured lager with lime chunks in the top.

  9. The anti smoking hysterical freaks are now haunting sites such as E.BAY and other similar sites
    Just received an e mail from an
    E.Bay buyer
    Probably the type who reported
    Jews,Gypsies and Homosexuals to the Gestapo in 1930s Germany
    As for those spineless toadies*** who stand back and tolerate intolerance,wait till they get their collars felt,just watch them yelp.
    *** Yes ,you know who we mean.

    Patience exhausted

  10. To make a comment related to the post I paid for my supermarket butty at the fag kiosk today to check it out, and the fag wall has sliding doors on it, opened and closed when the cancer gaspers ask for something. A price list exists at one end, by the stand people fill in lottery slips. Small and vague enough to remind you of the price lists that exist in most pubs. A sheet of A4 with small type, placed out of the way so people can’t see it but just enough to meet a legal trading requirement. Checking my supermarket, price comparison is available to the gaspers on line for a market that has long appeared price focused with budget brands taking over and longer standing brands withering.

    The stategy appears to be, discourage the youngsters from taking this up and service the current gaspers until they wheeze their last and eventually the trade will be dead. Something I find myself not objecting too.

    A strategy that is already in place for younger drinkers. It appears far harder for a new adult to get a drink that it did when I turned 18. I had no problem buying what I wanted from the age of 16 onwards. Though I had to wait until 18 before the full market of pubs, supermarkets & off licences opened up. A provisional driving licence was enough if asked.

    These days with Ask21 & Ask25 policies the kids know is easier to buy weed off their mates. A generational change is clearly occurring. Younger people have less use for a community watering hole and I’ve noticed the lower utility I place on it compared with older drinkers.

  11. Good point cookie. Weed is the drug of choice for a generation. When i was growing up (here we go...)the pub was a place for the family. In the summer we all (the kids) hung out in the beer garden and messed around while the parents had a chat and a pint. Getting older my dad got me bitter shandies, and from 15 or 16 on I drank at the pub as long as I didn`t misbehave or overdo it. This attitude teaches teens about drinking whereas a stricter attitude alienates the young into the arms of more easily available soft drugs, or else the desire to pound as many WKDs back when they are of legal drinking age!

  12. Sorry - Systembolaget (& it's Norwegian & Finnish equivalents Vinmonopelet & Alko) are state owned and controlled monopolies.

    Can't speak for the Swedish & Finish version but it is true that the Norwegian version delibrately moved from "catalogue" to self service in 1999. It is also worth pointing out that Norwegians in general like the service which rather than being some depressing outlet discouraging drink is actually run like a high quality wine merchant with knowledgeable staff only too keen to advise on what to buy. (It is also worth knowing thet Norway actually VOTED in a referendum to have the state monopoly, all be it way back in 1919).

    However at least in Norway, the situation is a bit more complex. In most provinces Vinmonopolet sells wines, spirits and strong beers only. In most provinces normal beer is bought in supermarkets just like here. But then in a small number of provinces (may only be the one - just happens to be the one where her-indoors went to Uni) have "beermonopolet" outlets alongside Vinmonopolet with supermarkets restricted to selling 'beer' below 2.75% ABV.

    The philospohy behind modern Vinmonoplet is actually very similar to what we often say about the pub. The Norwegians see Vinmonoplet as controlled and responsible alchohol retailing with a one to one relationship between retailer and customer similar just as we often argue for the benefits of the "watchful eye of the landlord".

    If you want restricted sales but without a state monopoly then you are looking at the Australian "Bottle stop" system.

  13. Referring in favourable terms to Scandinavian state alcohol monopolies rather underlines the point about the innate Puritanism of many CAMRA members made in my most recent post.

    And I seem to remember that the US Congress voted for Prohibition in 1919, but that doesn't mean it's a decision that has any relevance today.

    Loads of Finns, Swedes and Norwegians of course drink themselves to death on home-distilled hooch.


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