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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Too much confusion on all sides about problem drinking

If I said 'high strength alcoholic drink' to you, what would come to mind?

For me, it would be malt whisky - my favourite high strength alcoholic drink. It's the perfect end to a special evening. If I have too much of it, it's the thing that gives me a hangover like nothing else, so I keep it at arm's length, a rare treat - after all, it's at least 40% ABV. You have to treat stuff like that with respect.

But for legislators on alcohol, a 'high strength alcoholic drink' is nowhere near that high - to them, high strength alcohol is 6-7%. In fact, they'd like it defined as anything over 5.6% ABV.

Now, if you're unfamiliar with the ongoing debate about the impact of alcohol on Britain's health, this might strike you as bizarre and useless because it classes almost all alcoholic drinks as 'high strength alcoholic drinks' - ALL spirits, ALL wines, fortified wines and sherries, liqueurs, and quite a few beers and ciders. To legislate against all of those is tantamount to total prohibition.

But then, those seeking to tackle problem drinking seem to have an entirely different definition of what constitutes 'high strength alcohol'. Apparently, wines that average 13.5% ABV, spirits that average 40% ABV, sherries that average 17% ABV etc. are not high strength at all. But a beer of 7%ABV is.

I just did a Google picture search using the phrase 'high strength alcohol' to illustrate the absurdity of this position. But it seems it's me that's being absurd by believing that 7 is a lower number than 13 or 40. Here are the first product images that search returns:







Ah yes, of course. Once again, if we're talking about alcohol in the context of it being a problem, it must be beer or cider.

I started thinking about this because of a report in The Grocer magazine the other week which said that local authorities are seeking voluntary bans on 'high strength alcohol' - a story that was illustrated by the final picture above. After plans to introduce a minimum unit price were dropped, more than twenty towns and cities in England have introduced bans on what they and The Grocer and the rest of the media specifically refer to as 'high strength alcohol' in their attempts to reduce problem drinking.

I don't oppose attempt to curb problem street drinking. And I agree that for the most part (but not exclusively) the drink of choice of the problem street drinker is what we commonly refer to as 'super strength' lager or cider. But this laziness with terms - making high strength beer and high strength alcohol synonymous - highlights just how little anyone understands alcohol and how careless we are with legislating it.

If a wine were 7% alcohol, legally it wouldn't be allowed to be called wine - it would be too weak. But this same alcohol level in beer is considered dangerous. This is why any beer over 7% must already pay extra duty, thanks to a clumsy measure that makes no distinction between a strong, flavourful craft beer that costs nearly a pound per unit of alcohol and something vile like White Lightning that currently retails at an average of 25p per unit.

Measures like this denigrate the overall image of beer and cider and muddy our understanding of relative strengths. If they referred to 'high strength beer and cider', then we'd only have the problem of trying to distinguish between the cheap stuff that's consumed purely for it's intoxicating effect, and the higher strength stuff that stretches the boundaries of what quality beer can be. But when drinks of 7% are banned while drinks of 13-17% are considered exempt, we have a much bigger problem, not least of which is that hardcore street drinkers will simply move on to cheap sherry, which is more than double the strength of what they've just been told they can't drink.

As the above pictures demonstrate, if 'high strength alcohol' is commonly only understood to apply to super strength beer and cider, then as well as being patently absurd it also continues to make beer and cider the scapegoats for problem drinking, when as anyone who has ever been to a pub or known a non-street drinking alcoholic knows, most problem drinkers favour spirits, and wine is playing its part too.

So what can we do?

Well, brewers and cider makers could always stop making the nasty drinks that are causing the problem in the first place.

The manufacturers of super strength beer and cider offer defences such as 'We should focus on the problem drinker, not the drink' and 'They'd just move onto something else'. I agree with both these points - in fact I just used the last one two paragraphs ago. They are true, valid arguments. But that doesn't excuse the manufacturers of such products.

It's simple: if anyone who makes revolting crap like this




can look me in the eye with hand on heart and say that their main target audience is NOT the problem drinker looking for the biggest bang for their buck, I'd love to hear it. If you have any evidence that moderate drinkers include these products within their repertoire and drink them responsibly in small measures, I'd love to see it.

Since I left my full-time advertising job, on my occasional dabbles into marketing it's becoming clear to me that marketers do not see their 'consumers' as real people. When you reduce everything to a PowerPoint presentation of pie charts and graphs and brand essence models full of euphemisms and jargon, this insulates you from the fact that your C2DE male 35-54 budget-conscious consumer is an alcoholic who you are helping to kill.

And when manufacturers and retailers look to legal action to overturn voluntary bans on their products so they can carry on helping kill people - well, then you've dropped any pretence of being anything other than nasty, amoral bastards with no sense of the social consequences of your actions - a purely sociopathic organisation.

The manufacturers of these products profit from the alcoholism of troubled people. And while they're doing so, they damage the image of beer and cider generally, and quality high strength beers and ciders in particular.

So problem drinkers would move onto other products? Fine, it would no longer be beer's problem. And more importantly, we would start to think of what constitutes 'high strength alcohol' in a way that has some bearing on reality.

We should focus on the drinker rather than the drink? Absolutely we should. But that does not mean we should happily carry on selling these concoctions to them while we wait patiently for local authorities and government to figure that out.

It's not just black and white. Except when this entire issue is explored in one of Viz magazine's truest characters - then it's black and white.



11 comments:

Norrie said...

I thoroughly agree. In my younger days in the West of Scotland, problem drinkers sought out cheap fortified wines (Lanliq, Four Crown, Eldorado and Scotsmac) and, famously, still abuse Buckfast 'tonic' wine. The volume beer and cider industry could get itself out of the firing line by dropping those products aimed purely at the "drink to get drunk" brigade.
Interesting that many of the current problem products are either owned by one particular company, or produced at their Glasgow brewery.

Cooking Lager said...

Today, "the spesh" or Carlserg Special is known only as tramps brew. I first heard it referred to as such by Rab C Nesbitt on TV. The first time I saw people drink it was in a pub where half pint bottles were popular among older female drinkers. None of whom appeared to have the problems now associated with a skint/shameless type of existence, but were working class older ladies in the company of their pint of bitter drinking husbands. Something I don't see these days.

But then the spesh was never designed for alkies, I gather it was yesterdays premium product and todays tramps brew.

Phil said...

Oh dear God, Scotsmac. I won a bottle of that in a raffle once and tried it out of curiosity; I wondered if a blend of British wine and cheap whisky would be as bad as it sounded. (It was slightly worse.) I'm afraid I then contributed it to a tombola, after arranging the foil cap to make it less obvious it had been opened. I am a bad person.

I used to drink Special Brew quite regularly - at gigs I'd start on something decent & then get a can of Spesh when the band I'd come for got going, so I wouldn't have to go back to the bar. And I got (very) drunk once on Tennents Super - quite a nice drop on a hot night. White Lightning is evil, though.

StringersBeer said...

The makers of "Frosty Jack" "wholeheartedly support the drinkaware guidelines", which is why, I guess, they thoughtfully package a week's worth of units in a handy 3 litre bottle.

Phil said...

Cookie - sounds like it was in the same niche as Gold Label. (I still think any beer in a 330ml can looks vaguely classy and grown-up.)

This post has got me thinking about the high-strength quaffer market, or at least the HSQ market that there used to be. Not to derail the thread, but was Pony* really sweet sherry? How big can the bottle have been?

*The little drink with the big kick. But you knew that.

Cooking Lager said...

-Maybe, Phil, could not tell you.

Just wanted to comment that whilst PB is right to point out some products look like they have been designed to appeal to alkies, other drinks associated with problem drinking were not.

I doubt Buckfast tonic wine is a drink specifically designed to appeal to Scottish alkies, more a product of other intent that found its niche and maybe some old dears actually find it to be a tonic.



Cooking Lager said...

I don’t want to make too many comments but one aspect of this bothered me, so I came back to it. The value bang per buck end of the market, for those products aiming for that, don’t appear to care what category they are in. Whether beer, cider, wine or spirit. They are made as cheaply as possible. They are not trying to “do beer down” nor see it any of their business to improve the perception of any individual category.

So if these amoral manufacturers were to arbitrarily stop or move category, they would no longer have the bang per buck product and would only remove their own. They cannot shift their product from a cider to a spirit and maintain their price USP. If they stop they only hand the market to someone else.

You cannot get rid of these unless some overall action is taken to ban some products. That has the problems I mentioned earlier of arbitrarily removing some products that some Government Minister has seen in the hands of a tramp. Stand outside a German Ubahn station and you see the tramps are drinking reasonably respectable products that regular folk drink. Assuming the tramps still want to drink, do we continue banning stuff seen in the hands of tramps?

Next off what happens if we remove all products that can be abused by alcoholics? In one sense, the white lightening is not as damaging as the meths on sale in B&Q. There is a lesser of available evils argument if you want the tramps to at least stand a chance of some form of recovery.

Maybe the answer is unrelated to the available products. Maybe the answer lies in asking ourselves, what happens if you decide you have a drink problem. Do you see your GP, AA? Are those facilities up to scratch? Do we do enough as a society to really help those that need it?

I don’t think for one minute the tramp drinking cider is a tramp because he discovered cheap cider. He discovered cheap cider when he hit rock bottom. Banning cheap cider seems a lazy way of avoiding what needs to be done, that of giving that guy a step up and a way back.

Trevor Cook said...

At Barearts Brewery we have 8 bottle conditioned, old beers over 8%abv. Some of them have been matured for over 2 years and they range in price from £11 to £14 a litre. Our beers are slightly alcoholic herbal drinks. Definitely not for problem drinkers.

Cooking Lager said...

I love the argument that when you price your alcohol high, it is no longer a product for alcoholics. As if all alcoholics are poor. Maybe eventually they tend to end up poor; I doubt most start off poor.

For the great morality discussion of who is selling what to whom, the young woman who enjoys a drink of wine with friends and is going through a stressful time with her job/boyfriend and notices that a little self-medication with the vino appears to be a solution is doing so with a product you would all consider responsible. She may or may not end up with a problem but if she does it will be a while and a long slow decline before she considers bang per buck part of her overriding product choice.

Of all the decent people with an interest in beer that drink for the taste, because they are discerning and certainly not alkies, in ten years a proportion will be. It will not be the white lightening what done it.

If this were illegal drugs we would be wondering about those that get people hooked in the first place. If it were cigarettes we would be concerned primary with those starting smoking. But for some reason we dismiss all that, with alcohol, preferring to see our chosen tipple as harmless and stick the blame firmly on those products we dislike.

Tom said...

I've just spent 18 months living in Milan and it did amuse me that Tennent's is sold everywhere there as a premium lager. I also remember Special Brew being sold in a fancy safari lodge in Malawi in the smaller 330ml bottles and having a very entertaining night with some friends laughing at ourselves getting mildly inebriated on Tramps' Brew.
I think Stringer's point about the 3 litre bottles is very valid, although there is debate about the guidelines of course.

jrg said...

"I don’t think for one minute the tramp drinking cider is a tramp because he discovered cheap cider. He discovered cheap cider when he hit rock bottom."

Exactly. This is all trying to treat the symptoms rather than the real causes, one might speculate that this is because there's organisations lobbying for this solution anyway and they join forces using the symptoms as their focal point.