Friday 29 May 2020

Striking a happy medium

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote how taking a whole population approach to the “war on obesity” could have many undesirable consequences. One aspect of this is that the higher the number of calories in any food item, the more it is considered to be a bad thing. However, to a large extent, calories are what food is all about. The quantity of calories is a rough approximation of the total amount of nutrition it contains. We need a certain number of calories to survive, and chomping away at celery and lettuce isn’t going to provide much sustenance. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, until maybe three generations ago, for the majority of the human race getting hold of sufficient calories to sustain them was a daily struggle.

Now, of course, we are in general more fortunate and prosperous, and more people find they’re eating too much than too little. If you want to control your weight, then obviously it is desirable to know how many calories your food contains. But publication of calorie information can be a double-edged sword, with people who are less weight-conscious using it as a yardstick to judge how much value for money various dishes offer.

Very often, a lower-calorie alternative to a standard product is simply less appetising, and eating a smaller portion of the full-fat version may be a better option if you can exercise the necessary self-restraint. Many products that boast of being low in calories actually achieve this simply by containing less in the first place. This is particularly true to some potato-based snacks that can be puffed up to appear bigger while weighing no more.

A parallel can be drawn with the alcoholic content of drinks. The fact that they contain alcohol is, by definition, the feature of alcoholic drinks that distinguishes them from soft drinks. That is their fundamental point. Yet it is not a simple case of people either gravitating towards those with the highest alcohol content, or indeed the lowest.

Wine and spirits tend to come in a relatively limited range of strengths, and little is made of the differences between them, although I have seen some complaints about the high alcohol content of some full-bodied red wines. Beer and cider, by contrast, are available across a wide spectrum of different strengths.

However, it’s certainly not the case, as some commentators seem to imagine, that most drinkers gravitate towards those with higher strengths. Indeed, it’s only really a subset of problem drinkers who take that attitude, and most beer sold is of relatively modest strength. Beer is not just a method of delivering alcohol, it also offers flavour and refreshment and, particularly in social settings, there’s a strong incentive for the effects of alcohol to only be felt subtly and gradually.

People tend to view beers as falling within particular categories, so wouldn’t be particularly bothered about choosing a 3.7% ordinary bitter over a 4% one, or the other way round. This explains how the brewers of Stella Artois were able to reduce its strength from 5.2% to 4.8% with very little consumer kick-back (prompted, of course, by a certain amount of government arm-twisting). The fact that it is widely considered to be not what it was has much more to do with cheapening the recipe. But cut it to 4% and few would be interested any more. On the other side of the coin, it its dying days the strength of Boddingtons Bitter was upped to 4.1% in a bid to reverse its decline, only for it to lose more sales as drinkers felt that took it out of the ordinary bitter category. Indeed, the dining pub chain Brunning & Price dropped it as a house beer because their customers, many of whom were drivers, found it just that bit too strong.

2.8% might be an acceptable strength for a mild, but the various pseudo-bitters that were introduced at this strength to take advantage of the lower duty rate found few takers. If you essentially wanted an ordinary biter, the low strength was a deterrent, while those seriously wanting to cut consumption would go the whole hog for an alcohol-free beer. It is possible to brew a tasty light mild at around 3.0%, but none of these beers really cut the mustard as bitters.

As with food, if you’re aiming to limit your alcohol intake, it may well be a better option to drink less of the normal-strength version, than the same quantity of the less appealing one that has a lower alcohol content. While we have alcohol-free beers, which provide at least some of the sensation of drinking the normal variety, it’s very hard to conceive of calorie-free food that would be remotely appetising.

Friday 22 May 2020

If you reopen it, will they come?

Earlier this week, I blogged about a Twitter poll I was running about people’s attitude to returning to pubs post-lockedown. This has now finished, with the following outcome:

Ye Olde Fleece Inn in Kendal ran a similar poll with perhaps surprisingly different results: The figure for “I would go now” is 43% in my poll, but only 32% in theirs. However, if you take the first two options as being equivalent, it’s 64% in mine but a full 81% in theirs. Even so, if two-thirds of customers are willing to return, it should provide a reasonable foundation for business.

I speculated on whether attitudes varied according to how often people went to pubs, which could potentially distort the result. This prompted me to create a two-dimensional poll on SurveyMonkey breaking down the answers according to frequency of pubgoing. However, the result was that it made virtually no difference, with 71% being willing to return to pubs in July, with or without the weighting. Realistically, pubs aren’t going to open before then anyway.

(It should be pointed out that the free version of SurveyMonkey limits the total number of responses)

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Front or back of the queue?

A concern that has been expressed by many in the trade is that, even when pubs are allowed to reopen, many of their previous customers may be very wary of returning to them due to continued fear of contracting the virus. A number of surveys have been created to gauge the strength of this feeling, including one I did myself that finishes tomorrow.

However, a drawback of surveys of this kind is that they make no allowance for how often people actually visited pubs in the first place. This is something we saw at the time of the smoking ban, when a number of surveys showed that a majority of people would visit pubs more after it was implemented. This may well have been true, but if you only went once a year before, but then stepped it up to twice a year, it wouldn’t make much difference overall. And, as we all know, the actual effect on the trade of pubs was the exact opposite of what these surveys suggested.

So I thought I would create a two-dimensional poll that identifies people’s responses depending on how often they visited pubs before the lockdown, as shown in the panel below. It’s limited to a maximum of 100 responses, so I’ll attempt to analyse the results once it’s complete.

Edit: I have now closed the survey and removed the web form as it has reached the maximum number of responses.

Monday 18 May 2020

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Over the past couple of days, I’ve spotted a couple of eloquent and poignant blogposts about what we are currently missing through our pubs being forcibly closed, and what we stand to lose forever if we’re not careful.

First, by Simon Cooke on A View From Cullingworth, I miss the pub:

I miss the pub, the changing set of folk who I have a passing chat with, even the occasional full on row. I miss thinking at nine o'clock, "I'll go to the pub for a couple of beers", then picking up a magazine or a paper and heading there. Some days that magazine won't get opened because there's folk to talk to, maybe a joke or two, but other days you'll just spend a quiet hour there. For so many, it is a refuge from loneliness and something to look forward to at the end of the day.

As yet the government hasn't told us how it's going to reopen the heart of the community, whether there'll be as Head Rambles describes in Ireland, a set of ideas that involve no standing, restricted sitting, half closed loos, no live music and no football. I fear that government, trapped in the shining headlights of this virus, will chose cowardice and condemn pubs to a soulless oblivion and those of us for whom that pub was a big part of our social engagement to a life stood looking out the kitchen window wondering what to do.

I miss the pub. And will miss it more when it's closed for good.

And, from The Bar Biographer, You’re on your own:
Davy has been at his bedroom window most of the day for the last eight weeks. He goes out for a walk sometimes but can’t be bothered others; there’s nothing happening, nowhere open. Of course. But still he stands there, looking out from his second-floor tenement flat.

The main reason is maybe because he can see both the Alexandra Bar and The Crown Creighton from there. His real favourite, The Duke Bar, is just out of sight but two out of three isn’t bad. In normal times, he pops in to one or more of those bars most days. Just a couple, mind, he’s not a heavy drinker. He goes for the chat, maybe some dominoes. Not too many folk frequent both the Alexandra and the Creighton but Davy is a non-denominational socialiser; for him, the thing is to get out and about, for its own sake...

...No, the prognosis for the bar, club, hotel trade is not at all good (I claim the prize for the understatement of the decade) and pub lovers – whether punters or licensees – are on their own. Don’t expect any help from politicians, Twitter’s circuits of self-congratulation, the Edinburgh-based lobbyists, and most academics. The only way they will bend is under sustained pressure.

My prediction – and I fervently hope to be wrong - is that, as bars across Europe gradually open their doors again, those in Scotland will be at least 3-4 months behind, and probably the last in Europe to reopen. And with restricted trading likely to continue for a while after that, a reasonable estimate is that more than half of Glasgow and Scottish licensed premises will be gone for good by the end of 2021.

Pessimistic maybe, but that is where the present evidence points. Who knows how long Davy will be standing at his window?

Saturday 16 May 2020

Hard cases make bad policy

In contrast to smoking, there has been a growing weight of evidence of a strong correlation between obesity and being at risk of dying from coronavirus. This has sparked a number of reports that Boris Johnson is planning to abandon his alleged “libertarian” instincts and promote an action plan to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis. A number of people have suggested that his own experience of the disease has somewhat spooked him, both into resisting a swift unwinding of the lockdown, despite the adverse consequences to the wider economy, and now into wanting to crack down on obesity. He has certainly struggled with his weight over the years, apparently scaling 17½ stone before being hospitalised, and there does seem to be a whiff of the zeal of the reformed smoker about this conversion.

However, on an international scale, things aren’t necessarily so clear-cut. Lower rates of obesity in France, Italy and Spain are often given as an example we should follow, but all of those countries have suffered very severely. In contrast, New Zealand, which has a higher rate of obesity than the UK, has hardly been touched, while the USA, often singled out for its high obesity rate, has still done considerably better than us overall, with the areas of the South and Midwest frequently seen as obesity hotspots being among the less affected regions. Germany and Sweden both have obesity rates little below ours, but both have had a much lower rate of coronavirus deaths.

The track record of measures using the price mechanism to affect eating and drinking habits has not been a good one. Neither minimum alcohol pricing, now in force in Scotland for two years, nor the sugar tax, have had any noticeable impact on the problems they were claimed to address. Indeed, very often the main impact is to put further strain on the budgets of poorer households.

If the price of one category of food or drink is increased, it is likely to lead to substitution with another, opening up the possibility of all kinds of unintended consequences. And attempting to divide food into “good” and “bad” categories can all too easily have perverse results, such as banning the advertising of natural and wholesome items such as orange juice, cheese and meat.

Another front in the war on obesity is the reformulation of food to make it contain fewer calories. However, the experience of recent years has shown that the potential here is fairly limited. If you reduce one undesirable item, you just end up increasing another to compensate. Less fat is more sugar and vice versa. Attempts to change the recipes of products such as biscuits and chocolate have simply made them much less palatable. Making food taste like sawdust is a pretty crude way of putting people off eating it. In reality, very often the only option is simply to reduce the portion size, and if you go too far with that people may just choose to eat two.

We may end up seeing new restrictions placed on businesses that make it harder for them to operate and make a living. One that has been proposed in recent years but so far rejected is requiring all food businesses, however small, to provide calorie counts on their products, which could be well-nigh impossible to achieve and drive them out of business. And there’s little evidence that calorie counts actually affect people’s choices. Indeed, in some cases people may choose higher-calorie options as they feel they’re getting more “bangs per buck.” Actually containing less food as such isn’t really much of a selling point.

It’s also likely that takeaways, which are a traditional bĂȘte noire of anti-obesity campaigners, will come under fresh assault. There’s no reason why takeaway food should be any less healthy than that eaten in restaurants or cooked at home, and this all too easily comes across as a snobbish condemnation of working-class diets and preferences. Indeed, there’s a strong whiff of class prejudice about the whole project. Clamping down on takeaways will also disproportionately affect ethnic minority communities.

If you look at the actual figures, the higher risk from coronavirus isn’t spread evenly across the whole population of overweight people; it is very strongly concentrated at the higher end. The widely quoted figure of a 37% additional risk applies to those who are morbidly obese, with a BMI of over 40. It’s not people just carrying a few extra pounds. Yet the danger is that the “war on obesity” will mainly comprise indiscriminate, broad-brush measures that affect a huge swathe of the population.

There is a clear parallel with alcohol, where consumption guidelines have been adopted and widely promulgated that tar even pretty light drinkers with the same brush as those with a major problem. Of course morbid obesity, just like alcoholism, is a serious health issue. But it needs to be tackled through a targeted approach, not by making everyone feel guilty. And nobody who enjoys a few drinks but is currently pointing the finger at the fatties should imagine that their pleasure will be left undisturbed.

Last week, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Throughout the whole of human history, it has only really been in the period since then that most people have easily been able to get enough to eat. Worldwide, there are now more overweight people than malnourished ones. This age of abundance is completely unprecedented , and it’s not surprising that the human race is taking some time to adjust. But, over time, it’s likely that obesity will tend to decline. The rate of obesity has already plateaued or begun to fall in most developed counties, and now there is a strong stigma against being seriously overweight amongst higher income groups. In the future that is likely to spread through the entire population.

It has to be questioned what right the State has to seek to control the behaviour of adults purely for their own good. As the great philosopher of liberty John Stuart Mill said, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Against this argument is inevitably set the burden put on the NHS – and thus on taxpayers – by health problems arising from obesity. But it’s important to remember that the NHS was created to serve the people, not the other way round. The social compact on which it is founded depends on the assumption that people are fallible human beings, not saints, and it will be there for them whatever the cause of their illness. If we start making a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving sick we embark on a dangerous slippery slope. And it should always be remembered that, in terms of whole life healthcare costs, it is actually the clean-living who live into extreme old age who end up costing the public purse more.

So my prediction is that any “war on obesity” started by the government will be largely ineffective, will get a lot of people’s backs up, and will create a whole raft of unintended and undesirable consequences.

Sunday 10 May 2020

Something in the air

With discussion about coronavirus now moving to talk of the programme for unwinding the lockdown, one idea that has been floated is to allow pubs to open their beer gardens, but not inside bars. It’s doubtful how many pubs would find this viable, especially if the customers were expected to adhere to strict social distancing, and in any case it’s likely that, as soon as it was permitted, we would end up with a prolonged spell of rainy weather.

However, this has prompted MP Mark Pritchard to call for restrictions on smoking in beer gardens if it is implemented;

If cafes, restaurants and pubs with outside areas open next week, then new rules on smoking in external public areas should be introduced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. "Outside seating should not be dominated by smokers exposing customers to secondary smoke.”
Not surprisingly, Simon Clark of smokers’ rights group Forest has criticised this demand:
Mr Clark said businesses should be free to choose their own policy on smoking outside.

"Imposing new rules that may reduce the number of customers who are tempted back after the lockdown restrictions have been eased could hinder their ability to get back on their feet," he said.

"If Mr Pritchard has evidence that smoking outside poses a risk to non-smokers he should produce it.

"Smokers should obviously be considerate to those around them, but we don't need more rules to govern our behaviour."

Mr Clark added that in the past Mr Pritchard had expressed a personal dislike of breathing in cigarette smoke.

"It is quite wrong for Mr Pritchard to use the Covid crisis as an opportunity to tackle one of his pet hates, especially when there is no risk to the public."

It should be remembered that smoking continued to be permitted in outdoor areas because it was felt that there was little or no risk to others from environmental tobacco smoke. (The same is true indoors, of course, but that’s another matter). If people don’t like it, that’s up to then, but it seems a warped sense of priorities to be more worried about the risk from second-hand smoke than from coronavirus. There’s also plenty of evidence that smoking actually acts as a prophylactic against the disease.

For most of the year, the only people in beer gardens are smokers, and their tolerant friends, because they simply have no alternative. Then, every year, as regular as clockwork, antismokers see that the sun has come out, emerge blinking into the light, and to their horror find that there are already smokers in the beer garden.

There’s nothing to stop licenses voluntarily choosing to ban smoking in all or part of their beer gardens, if they feel that their business will benefit. But they should remember that smokers, over the course of a year, are the people most likely to use beer gardens in the first place. Can they really afford to lose that trade? Despite the ban, smokers on average still spend more time and money in pubs than non-smokers, presumably because many non-smokers are prissy, health-obsessed people who don’t find pubs attractive in the first place. On cool, overcast days, non-smoking sections of beer gardens are deserted.

If smoking in outdoor areas was to be wholly or partly prohibited by law, it would make it much harder for the pub trade to recover. And what’s the betting that, once imposed, it would never be relaxed again?

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Making a rod for your own back?

Although we in the United Kingdom are still awaiting any kind of official announcement, countries around the world are now publishing their programmes for the progressive relaxation of the coronavirus lockdown. Last week it was the turn of Ireland, which has many economic and social similarities. Their lockdown was somewhat more severe than ours, particularly in terms of travel restrictions, and they are proceeding very cautiously, and certainly much more slowly than the Czech Republic, which I reported on a couple of weeks ago. However, arguably any light at the end of the tunnel is better than none, as the sheer uncertainty of its duration has for many been the most stressful aspect of the lockdown.

It is noticeable that pubs and bars will be right at the back of the queue, not being allowed to reopen until August 10th, while restaurants will be able to trade from June 29th. As I have set out it in the past, it’s very doubtful whether such a distinction would be workable in this country, where many pubs effectively trade as restaurants, and many restaurants have identical licences and planning status to pubs.

However, the trade bodies representing Irish pubs have written to the government proposing a set of measures that would allow some pubs at least to open six weeks earlier, as set about below:

At first sight, this seems to strip pubs of most of what makes them attractive in the first place, and has been pooh-poohed by many in the trade in this country. However, they could well be workable for many food-oriented establishments, and for Wetherspoons, who already have a remote ordering app and table service in place ready to go. Surely some pubs being able to open is better than none at all.

On the other hand, there must be a risk that such restrictions, if they prove workable for some pubs, will be kept in place for much longer than six weeks, thus ending up delaying, or even permanently preventing, the remainder from reopening. And there is a question mark as to what extent the trade should get involved in devising restrictive regimes to operate within. Wouldn’t it be better to await government proposals and then respond to them? As I have said before in connection with the Portman Group’s heavy-handed approach to advertising regulation, “If you’re going to be crucified anyway, it’s little consolation that you’ve been allowed to build your own cross.”

Some in the British pub trade seem to have reacted to the lockdown simply by wringing their hands and saying it’s all too difficult. But pubs are going to reopen eventually and, being realistic, it’s highly likely that initially they will have to operate under some restrictions, so it makes sense to plan for that rather than dismissing it out of hand.

It’s hard to see any pubs – or restaurants – being workable under the strict social distancing guidelines currently in operation. But the two-metre rule was something plucked out of the air, rather like five-a-day and fourteen alcohol units per week. It perhaps served an initial purpose, but it’s not really a sensible yardstick to use going forward.

It’s not difficult to envisage a somewhat relaxed social distancing environment under which pubs were required to operate for a period, including measures such as an overall capacity restriction, no standing at the bar (and possibly a post office-style queue for ordering), no more than four people at a table and groups required to be at least a yard apart. Presumably by this time relatives living in different households, and friends, will be allowed to meet socially in small numbers. The issue of toilets which is often raised is a red herring – the risk of transmission from very fleeting proximity is negligible, and no more than that from passing in a supermarket aisle.

And I have to say that in many of my local pubs, at lunchtimes when there’s no football being shown, it wouldn’t really be too difficult for the customers to keep six feet apart anyway.