Wednesday 31 May 2023

Unsafe at any level

It’s generally accepted that drinking large quantities of alcohol over a prolonged period really doesn’t do you any good. On the other hand, given its prevalence in society, it’s also pretty obvious that drinking modest quantities doesn’t do you much, if any, harm. This is something that government agencies have to wrestle with when producing guidance on healthy diets.

I vaguely remember when a figure of 50 units a week was bandied about as the level above which risk does start to increase steeply. It has then more formally stated as 28 units a week, then 21, then 21 for men and 14 for women. Most recently, it was reduced to 14 units for both sexes purely on the grounds of equality, as there was no scientific basis for this given men’s typically larger body size and different metabolism. But the basic principle remains that official bodies recognise that drinking a modest amount of alcohol isn’t inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle.

What is more, there’s a wealth of evidence that drinking a moderate quantity actually results in better health outcomes than total abstention. It’s sometimes claimed that the figures are distorted by the inclusion of “sick quitters”, people who have had to give up alcohol after it caused them serious problems but, as Christopher Snowdon explains here, the effect still applies even when they are discounted.

This presents a major problem for the anti-drink lobby, as they are unable to present alcohol as being universally bad. They also argue that it gives the alcohol industry a figleaf of respectability, as they are able to promote it as a mainstream, responsible product even when they know that many of their customers consume well above the official guidelines. Hence it becomes a kind of holy grail to be able to convert the official line to one of saying that any level of consumption is harmful.

This is a line that the World Health Organisation are currently pushing strongly, for example in this article. I’m not aware anything in the underlying science has changed, and it remains a subject of debate. Remember that these are the people who want national governments to surrender their authority to them to determine future pandemic policy.

Even accepting the underlying premise, the risk level at low levels of consumption remains very small and not something that really should concern people. People engage in all kinds of leisure activities for their own pleasure that even at minimal levels cannot be said to be entirely free of risk. You might as well say “there is no safe level of mountaineering.” There’s also a risk that it might encourage a mentality of “might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”. The current guidelines, while extremely over-cautious, are not bad advice as such. Replace them with “even a drop is dangerous” and people are deprived of any yardstick to assess risk.

However, official acceptance of this position will over time completely change alcohol’s position in society. It will inevitably lead to moves to discourage the presentation of alcohol in a positive light. Pressure will be stepped up to further restrict advertising, and drinks will be excluded from export promotions and celebrations of local produce. Despite years of doing their best to appease the anti-drink lobby, the drinks industry will be left in the same position as tobacco, as a “toxic trade” excluded from polite society.

And this, of course, is why the anti-drink lobby are so keen to push this message, and why it needs to be strongly resisted.

Sunday 28 May 2023

Putting the bottles out

I have written a couple of times about the planned Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in Scotland, most recently here. I made the point that the Scottish Government had so far failed to apply for an Internal Market Exemption from Westminster, which they would need for the scheme to go ahead. There were serious concerns from industry that applying different rules in Scotland would impose additional costs, erode the single market within the UK and reduce choice for consumers.

The UK government have now given their response, which is not to reject the scheme outright, but to give it conditional approval on the condition that glass is excluded. Predictably, this has met with an angry response, but by removing the element that was most problematical and would cause the most problems for smaller craft producers, it could be seen as doing the Scottish Government a favour by making the scheme more realistically workable, and thus in a sense be a deft piece of politics.

Outright rejection would have been met with fury, although it might have been tempting to allow it to go ahead and let it fall flat on its face. Given the array of problems that have been pointed out, the odds must have been that it would either end up being postponed even further, or if it did go ahead in March next year, have proved disastrous. However, as the UK government are planning a nationwide scheme in 2025 they would not want the whole concept to be tarred with the brush of failure.

This may lead to some substitution of glass bottles for cans, particularly amongst craft beers but, as bottles are more expensive than cans anyway, the effect probably wouldn’t be all that great. This episode also illustrates a potential pitfall with devolution if devolved administrations are given the power to impose internal trade barriers.

It remains to be seen how the Scottish government will respond. Will they just scrap the whole thing in a fit of pique, or let it go ahead on the basis that half a loaf is better than none at all?

Thursday 11 May 2023

Boys’ (and girls’) bitter

From time to time, you see stories about under-18s being ID’d in shops when trying to buy alcohol-free beers. On the face of it, this seems heavy-handed, as anything with an alcohol content of 0.5% ABV can be legally purchased and consumed by under-18s. However, the issue is complicated by the fact that these are products that carry the names of alcohol brands, and are specifically designed, as far as possible, to mimic the appearance and taste of normal-strength beers.

The Morning Advertiser has recently been looking at the legalities of selling these products to under-18s. The conclusion is that, while there is no law against it, as they do not legally qualify as alcohol, it does create several problems, such giving the impression to others that young people are drinking alcohol, and the fact that it may not be immediately clear to staff which products are alcoholic, and which are not. Therefore most pubs are understandably unwilling to do it, and will ID any customers wanting to buy them. You also have to wonder how often under-18s actually order anything at the bar of a pub anyway, although they might be more likely to buy meals with drinks in a casual dining restaurant.

There is a more fundamental question, though. While they certainly meet a genuine demand amongst adults, one of the key reasons alcohol-free beers exist is to act as a marketing tool for the parent brand. That’s why every major lager brand now has its own alcohol-free version. So we are asking whether under-18s should be buying a product that not only is a form of alcohol marketing, but specifically sets out to mimic the experience of consuming the standard product. It’s more than just wearing a Guinness-branded T-shirt.

When I was a kid, we used to enjoy chocolate cigarettes, and pretend we were smoking the real thing as consumed by adults. They tended to be American brands such as Camels and Chesterfields rather than British ones like Players and Rothmans, but they certainly looked pretty realistic. These obviously would be frowned on nowadays, but there is something of a read-across to under-18s and alcohol-free beers. Nobody would raise any objections if the same products were sold as something like “Malt Cola”, with no mention of beer or links to alcohol brands, but then they would lose much of their appeal to adults.

I’ve often argued that we tend to be rather heavy-handed about alcohol marketing potentially appealing to under-18s, but few people would seriously argue that it’s OK to specifically market alcoholic drinks to them. Therefore, while I see no problem with a parent giving their child an alcohol-free beer, it’s probably not a good idea for pubs or shops to sell them directly to under-18s.