From problem drinkers to problem drinks

21. April 2011 15:10

The makers of super-strength white ciders have few friends these days. A recent report entitled ‘White Cider and Street Drinkers’, commissioned by Alcohol Concern, highlights the impact that these drinks have on homeless people. Don Shenker of Alcohol Concern has called on the Government to “Tax white cider out of the market”. This demand has the support of two charities for the homeless – St Mungo’s and Thamesreach.

Whilst I am neither a drinker, nor a defender of these particular ciders, I think we should be wary of those who proffer simple solutions to complex problems. The alcoholism of homeless people isn’t caused by the availability of a particular ‘problem drink’; it’s caused by the despair and depression that results from homelessness. Homeless people invariably suffer from a complex set of mental health, psychological and social problems. The desire of some homeless people to numb this pain doesn’t go away if you ban a particular drinks’ product. There will always be a substitute, whether it’s an alcoholic one or some other substance.

The wider agenda

Neither should we forget that Alcohol Concern has a much wider agenda. Their strategy has always been to selectively demonise drinks’ categories that have only marginal market penetration, link them to groups of ‘vulnerable drinkers’, and then leverage the demand for alcohol restrictions on a much wider scale. Remember ‘alcopops’ and ‘vulnerable young drinkers’? Even at its peak this category accounted for less than 3.5% of the total volume of alcohol consumed in the UK. Remember ‘toffee vodka’ aimed apparently at ‘vulnerable young girl drinkers’? White cider has an even smaller market share – only about a tenth of one percent. Yet these categories are held up as typical examples of a drinks’ industry out of control, and unconcerned about the social impact of its products.

Typically, Alcohol Concern links the demand for higher taxes for white cider to higher taxes for all ciders, which would involve levelling-up cider duties to match beer duty rates. We surely need to separate the lower taxes that are designed to protect our indigenous cider industry from the purchase of the cheap, foreign apple concentrate that is used in the production of super-strength white cider.

And what is a ‘super-strength’ drink? They appear to define it as a beer or cider over 5% ABV. So, what about wine then? Wines are typically around 11% to 13.5% ABV; or spirits – 37.5% to 40% ABV. But, I hear you say, it’s not just strength, but quantity consumed that matters. But for Alcohol Concern this is just quibbling. They want Government to empower local authorities to ban the sale of all strong drinks in their locality – not just white cider. In their report they quote Westminster Council as providing the model other councils should follow. Westminster Council has already banned specific premises from selling alcohol products above 5.5% ABV. They state “There has been little or no resistance to this”. But they would go further and give councils the right to impose such conditions across their entire area, as a matter of policy.

The hidden agenda

Thus the scene would be set for local government to set maximum alcoholic strengths; meanwhile Alcohol Concern continues to campaign for a minimum price per unit. For all those in the pub sector who supported minimum pricing for the off-trade, thinking that this would tip drinkers out of the living room and into the tap room, the strategy of Alcohol Concern is now plain for all to see: a licensed retail sector where a floor is put under prices and a ceiling on alcoholic strength, in the name of ‘protecting vulnerable groups’, will affect all sectors of the licensed trade, and infantilise the decisions of responsible, adult drinkers. So this report is not just about white cider and street drinkers, it’s a platform from which they seek to introduce an alcohol strength ceiling across the industry and across the country. Separately they propose a minimum price, and just hope that we won’t join up the dots! Demonising drinks’ categories by reference to ‘vulnerable groups’ is just a cynical way of emotionalising the issues, and softening up political and public opinion for further restrictions on all drinks and all drinkers.

When you drill all this down, what does Alcohol Concern think would be the consequence for homeless street drinkers of getting rid of white cider? The report says: “If white cider was no longer available it would be very naive to believe that dependent street drinkers would stop drinking.” Quite so! “The hope among workers interviewed is that many would change to 5% ABV ciders instead.” What? It doesn’t occur to them that if they switch to a lower strength cider they’ll just drink more of it? But just to be on the safe side, the report expresses the view that such drinkers “might be likely to steer towards super-strength lager as their next port of call”, hence the need to restrict them as well! Where does this nonsense stop?

Aren’t we missing the point here? It isn’t the availability of alcohol that causes homeless people to drink, it is homelessness; getting rid of so-called ‘problem drinks’ doesn’t get rid of problem drinkers. Those engaged in a never-ending quest to restrict, regulate, control and tax such drinks out of existence need to reflect on where the next scapegoat will come from were they to be successful. Shouldn’t we just put more resources into helping the homeless find homes, and stop using ‘protection of vulnerable groups’ to justify the hidden agenda? Alcohol Concern advocates the control of products with a tiny market penetration as the thin end of a wedge designed to restrict the drinking choices of everyone. They have an ill-concealed ideological objection to alcohol, as such.

The direction of their travel is clear. But what is the destination? When will the neo-prohibitionists of Alcohol Concern come out of the closet?

Paul Chase is a Director and Head of UK compliance at CPL Training

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About the author

Paul Chase

Paul Chase is a graduate political economist with over 20 years experience operating licensed retail premises. He is a co-founder of CPL Training and as a Director and Head of UK Compliance is responsible for ensuring that the business targets of this department are delivered to the Board.

Widely acknowledged as a sector expert, Paul is also responsible for compliance course development and works closely with awarding bodies developing and maintaining CPL’s licensed retail sector qualifications. In addition Paul manages a number of key corporate accounts.

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