Ban e-cigs from pubs? WHO says?

28. August 2014 16:05

After much deliberation, the World Health Organisation has pronounced on electronic cigarettes. And it's not good. Not for pubs, where a ban, as for smoking, is recommended, and not for smokers either.

Ecigs should be regulated like any other product to ensure quality, but the WHO is taking a huge public health risk by seeking heavy restrictions on their use. A risk because it might deter tobacco smokers from switching to an alternative that, by the most conservative estimates, is 10 times safer. The WHO's case rests largely on the notion that nicotine is a dangerous drug, yet we have known for a long time that it's the other ingredients in tobacco that kills people. That's why doctors prescribe nicotine patches and gums for smokers who want to quit.

Those official nicotine replacement therapies don't work for most, though. There's something missing. This fact itself suggests that, as some scientists believe, it's not the nicotine alone that's addictive but the whole set of behaviours associated with smoking.

Vaping (so-called because ecig users inhale a vapour) better replicates the experience, which is why so many smokers have turned to ecigs, an estimated two million of them in the UK. A lot of them have found they've been able to give up tobacco altogether and there's anecdotal evidence that a few have realised they don't need the nicotine, either.

Instead of maximising this opportunity, all the WHO seems worried about is that non-smokers will get hooked – despite the fact that 99.9% of vapers are smokers or ex-smokers - and that non-vapers in the pub might somehow fall foul of the minute traces of nicotine in the second-hand vapour. Ironically, or stupidly, they believe vapers should therefore be banished outside to stand with the smokers, putting temptation in their way and stigmatising vaping at the same time.

Fortunately, the government (and I don't use that phrase too often) says it has no intention of banning vaping in enclosed public spaces – though the Welsh Assembly thinks otherwise. The fight is certainly on to make sure an extremely effective, life-saving harm reduction tool remains accessible to adult smokers.

And should a ban come in, the authorities might find it a lot harder to enforce than the smoking ban. The latter gained such a high degree of compliance because, in general, people accept tobacco smoke is a killer. They could see the sense in it.

But so far no one has died from vaping. We haven't heard so much as a cough. So how are they going to sell that one?


Beer, Pubs and the Children of Cruickshank

30. July 2014 13:10

Musing over an unseasonable pint of (shell-on) oyster stout at the Bull in Highgate last night my mind wandered back to the 1980s and a formidable woman called Sally Cruickshank. My reverie was prompted by a chat with the Bull's owner, Dan Fox, who you could construe as a child of Cruickshank, even though I'm not sure he ever met her.

The story begins in 1981 when she took charge of a dodgy pub in Parson's Green called the White Horse. Probably, the idea was that Cruickshank, with her cheffy background, could turn it into some forerunner of the gastropub, and she certainly did introduce high quality food. But she did something else, too. She did beer.

When I first visited the White Horse, or Sloaney Pony as it became known thanks to a following among the Chelsea smart set, I was astonished to find that it was a Bass managed house. In those days brewers would not think of selling anyone else's beer through their own pubs, yet here was a representative range of cask ales from regional brewers around the country.

What if Bass found out one of their managers was buying out of the tie? But of course, they knew. Cruickshank was an exception to the rule. I heard that new area managers would turn up at the White Horse and wonder what on earth was going on. She would simply point at the astonishing sales figures and dare them to defy her judgement. And she was, as I say, formidable.

One of the early regulars was a City economist called Mark Dorber, a beer enthusiast who found himself helping out in the cellar. Over time he took a growing role at Cruickshank's side, and when she retired in 1995 he took over as manager, developing the beer and the business even further.

And when he took a lease on Adnams' Anchor at Walberswick in Suffolk in 2004 it was Dan Fox who stepped in as manager.

The Bull has the mark of the White Horse - serious about beer, serious about food and with a creative, bold, fun edge to it. It has its own tiny brewery in the kitchen and Pete Brown, the beer writer, is currently booked to host a beer and music matching evening. The mind boggles.

And there are, thank goodness, quite a few pubs springing up like this that are moving the industry into exciting new territory – and taking customers with them.

They rely on entrepreneurial individuals who, like Sally Cruickshank, make a stand for what they believe in. I'd like to think that, metaphorically at least, they are all her children.


Serious Drinking, Silly Drinking

21. July 2014 17:04

Seriously now, what to make of that Portman Group ruling that found almost the entire portfolio of Direct Beers in breach of its code of practice?

I'm not going to fall into the trap of repeating the complete list, which you've probably already seen, and it'll only start people giggling at the back of the class. Suffice to say all 10 beers play on childish, scatological, bawdy humour, and are extremely silly.

My first response was a 'hurrah'. I'm a serious drinker, you see, and I really do like beer with all its complex flavours and powers of refreshment. Whatever the quality of the brews in these bottles, that's not the reason people buy them.

In fact, it seems that mostly they're bought as a joke. Many might not even get drunk. What a waste. For similar reasons I'm also a big fan of Jeff Pickthall's Pumpclip Parade, which sets out to expose calumnies of cask ale branding. This is doing the brewing industry, and beer drinking, a great service.

But now I'm feeling a bit sorry for Direct Beers, a small, independent business that found a market niche and must have been doing all right, considering it's been going seven years. Mainly, it sells on the internet and direct from stalls at events. It's very marginal to the drinks industry and is probably better thought of as being in the rude novelty sector. It seems unlikely that it's actually done anyone any harm.

In fact, no one much seems to have noticed before Newcastle City Council's public health team decided to complain to The Portman Group.

Once this process was under way, there was never any doubt that these brands were in trouble. And if Direct Beers withdraws them from the market it will be no great loss - except to Direct Beers. But it raises questions about the code, and our understanding of drink culture. The Portman Group's Henry Ashworth said: “There is a place for humour in alcohol marketing... but it is important to know where to draw the line.”

Yet it could be that crossing the line, transgression, is the whole point. Will Haydock invokes the notion of 'carnivalesque' to defend the Direct Beers range in his latest blog*, hinting that we're not  protecting children here, we're taking away the pleasures of adults behaving like children, indulging in a momentary liberation from their grown-up responsibilities.

But perhaps that's taking it all too seriously.


Health and the drinking guidelines - Getting to the heart of the issue

14. July 2014 13:42

So, just one drink a day is bad for your heart, according to the latest research. Is this true? I have no idea. It seems strange that, in order to be sure their cohort were accurately reporting their drinking, the team at London's School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine selected only people genetically disposed to limit their drinking to moderate levels. I've never heard of that gene before, and it seems wise to ask whether the condition might have any confounding effects on, say, the heart.

Another question might be, is it really relevant?

For a couple of years now, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has been reviewing the recommended drinking guidelines, and the researchers hope their findings will help clarify things for her. It seems unlikely. Studies into the possible protective effects of alcohol are constantly flying about, in all different directions. It's hard to come to any firm conclusions.

Take my grandfather. He drank nothing apart from a dram of whisky every night which he believed was good for the heart. He lived till he was 72 (back in 1972) and died of a heart condition. What does it mean? Impossible to say.

Of course, the larger number of people you study, the stronger the epidemiology. But there are so many confounding factors I can't see how we can ever be sure one way or the other about the impact of very small quantities of alcohol. That's why I think the drinks industry is foolish to go on about the health benefits. It's not an argument it's going to win. At least not in terms of hard science.

As for the guidelines, it's well known that the ones we have now resulted from a consensus within the medical profession, and are not based on firm evidence. That consensus was informed, as much as anything, by a political pragmatism about what kind of limits will be acceptable to public opinion, and what limits might actually work to get people to actively reflect on how much they're drinking.

If you set the limit too low (and half a unit a day has been suggested) they're simply going to reject it, and you've lost them.

The benefits of moderate drinking exist not in whether it prevents this or that disease but rather lies in a general well-being and in the sociability of a pint or two. That's something most people are not going to sacrifice on the off-chance it might be doing them harm. After all, they've got a life to live.


No future for pubs in England's dreaming

26. June 2014 12:31

As a sorry England team sloped home under cover of another Luis Suarez regression to a nursery school tantrum, pubs were counting the cost. Or, rather, counting the sales that might have been. A firm called Real Business Rescue attached a number to it, a 13 million pints a day gap between England being in and being out of the tournament.

Exactly what difference this makes, though, depends on what your expectations were. So here comes the bit where I talk inexpertly about football.

Real Business Rescue calculates a total £1.2bn cost to the UK economy based on England reaching the quarter finals, “widely accepted as being par for Roy Hodgson's men”. But it wasn't widely accepted until quite late in the day.

For most of the run-up to the tournament expectations were low. Lower than anyone could remember for an England team. This was reflected by noticeably fewer flags in the streets and on cars. People were saying that was good, because it takes the pressure off.

The draw was inauspicious. With Italy and Uruguay in the group, England were up against it from the start. The team was 'in transition', a phrase that indicates a mixture of players that were either too old or too young to excel at international level.

There are always surprises, of course. Hodgson's selection gave hope that youthful pace through the midfield could produce a shock. As the kick-off grew close that hope built into expectations that were, perhaps, unrealistic. And when the surprise actually came from table-topping Costa Rica, finishing bottom was a just conclusion to Group D. Even if, within their limitations, England did play promisingly well.

Any pub budgeting on the probability of them reaching the quarter finals would have been foolish. Hopefully, like a good striker, they simply made the most of the opportunities they had, and specialist sports venues would have used the matches – and not just the England ones – to build their reputation as a great place to watch the game all year round.

Those that rolled a big screen and stuck up some bunting for a couple of weeks in fear of losing customers can now, at least, go back to putting their more serious efforts into building a sound business on more solid foundations.


Proxy Purchasing – a parent's dilemma

19. June 2014 15:37

Great progress has been made in stopping under-age drinkers buying alcohol. It's now virtually impossible in pubs, and a new report on the Challenge 25 schemes operated by most supermarkets and off-licences shows just how effective it's been.

As someone who believes it's better to drink down the pub, I think we should still give credit where it's due. The 'evil' off-trade has invested a huge amount in making sure staff are trained to avoid making under-age sales, and those staff who come in for stick from customers for obeying the law deserve support.

Progress has come at a price, though. The same report notes an increase in proxy sales – where adults buy drink for under-age young people.

The first thing to say is that this is not about unsavoury characters hanging about outside corner shops soliciting school kids. Most proxy purchases are made by parents.

Another new piece of research, by Drinkaware, reveals that 23% of mums and dads are planning to buy booze for their children to help them celebrate the end of exams this summer. In fact, most parents admit to having given their offspring alcohol at some point. And a whopping 86% have given them a drink when they've asked for it.

I don't think this is quite as shocking as it sounds. It's not easy being a parent of a teenager. You might well conclude that it's a lot safer for them if you're supplying the booze rather than them going off and getting it from goodness knows where else.

A friend of mine, for instance, reluctantly gave in to his 16-year-old's pleas for cider for a party, but was careful to choose drinks with a low abv. It's called a harm reduction strategy, and it might well be the best thing to do in a situation where there are no perfect solutions.

A parent's decision is also influenced by the fact that it's perfectly legal for them to buy a drink for their 16 or 17-year-old when they're having a family meal in a pub or restaurant.

Yet some supermarkets are now instructing staff not to sell alcohol to parents when they're accompanied by children, just in case it's a proxy purchase. There was even a story going round about Waitrose refusing to let a woman have a bottle of wine because she had her daughter with her – and the daughter was 22!

To be absolutely sure, they could extend the ban to any adult who looks like they might have kids or grandchildren. But that, of course, would be prohibition.


First they came for the drunks...

12. June 2014 16:28

Drink is a deeply political matter, and has been for several centuries. Our attitudes to drinking are shaped, and warped, by other concerns, by motivations other than those directly concerned with alcohol.

Whatever you think of the NHS, and the reforms the current government is pushing through (not to mention the government before it), there can be no doubt that it's having an impact on alcohol policy.

Shockingly, a think tank has now come up with the suggestion that people who end up in A&E as a result of their drinking should be made to pay for their treatment.

Julia Manning, who is chief executive of 2020 Health, says that “too many people are using alcohol irresponsibly, thinking that A&E can mop them up”.

I have to admit an interest here, having been 'mopped up' by A&E after falling out of a bus some years ago (don't ask). I certainly felt foolish - and extremely grateful to the NHS. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds Manning's proposal quite frightening.

It clearly fits nicely with a politics that ultimately sees patients as 'customers', and an inconvenient drain on NHS resources, rather than looking at it the other way round and asking how a health service might best help people through the various injuries and sicknesses that a life with anything interesting in it invariably brings.

People are blamed for falling ill and falling over, and drinkers are, of course, an easy target. They could, after all, drink less and save a lot of money and trouble. But where do you draw the line? To borrow an example from Professor David Nutt, how about horse riders? Should they be made to pay for being put back together after an accident? It was their choice to get in the saddle. Unless they're a professional cowboy or something.

The fact is there is a moralism at work here. We're allowed to enjoy ourselves in some ways, but not in others.

And drink is being used as the thin edge of a fat wedge that could eventually get us used to paying for health treatment. If you get sick, you must have been doing something wrong. So it's not just about drink, it's about a whole attitude to the welfare state.

First they came for the drunks, then they came for the horse riders.


Booze on Film

2. June 2014 15:54

Perish the thought, but if there does ever come a day when people stop going to the pub, I've a feeling it will live on – in soap operas.

From Coronation Street's Rover's Return, to Emmerdale's Woolpack, to EastEnders' Queen Vic, the fictional pub is an essential motor of the narrative. They are the main places where characters are brought together to love and to fight, to argue and do deals.

There are shops and cafés and laundrettes too, of course, but people don't really linger long enough in them for major dramas to play themselves out.

And, as noted by some new research, drinking situations are important in lending screen fictions verisimilitude. As Nigel Farage has discovered, with annoying frequency, holding a pint somehow makes you more real and ordinary. Even when you're a millionaire who went to public school!

The study, by Dutch academics Renske Koordeman and Marloes Kleinjan, the results from which will appear in the July issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, has attracted headlines that worry that drinking in films might turn audiences to drink. But that's not a question the researchers asked.

Instead, they showed a mere eight film clips, some featuring alcohol and some without, to a bunch of students, asked them how much they enjoyed the clip and measured the degree to which they were 'transported' by it. By which I take to mean engrossed in the action.

The clips with drinking transported the students more than those without, perhaps an effect of including something familiar and 'normal' they could readily relate to. Curiously they were most transported by negative depictions of alcohol. So the study is about their response to the films themselves, not about whether they encourage them to drink.

All the researchers say is that the portrayals of alcohol use “might have an impact”, but it's been very hard for scientists to prove that watching anything on screen makes you want to do it. They would have banned violent films by now had they had such evidence.

And we have to ask what cinema might lose by failing to encompass such everyday pastimes as drinking. As with the soaps, the booze is there in the vast majority of films to bring characters together and enable them to interact, just as it does in real life!


Pubs are great – and so are drinkers

29. May 2014 09:18

Pubs are great. I've always had a hunch about that, but now it's official, enshrined in a new website for tourists launched by the government and the British Beer & Pub Association –

Hopefully this will not only get the idea into people's heads but encourage them to do something about it. Like actually going to the pub. Too many, I think, especially those with the letters 'MP' after their name believe pubs are great but don't go near them. I'm a bit like that with cats.

My suspicion is that as far as politicians are concerned, saying ‘pubs are great’ is similar to saying ‘democracy is great’. You can't really say otherwise, and it doesn't mean that much when it comes down to it.

Efforts have been made to flesh the greatness out a bit, making references to pubs being at the heart of the community and so on, which is all fine, but I was particularly interested in a new piece of research - by boffins from the Universities of Kent and East Anglia - that looks at the effects that drinking in groups has on people.

We are, perhaps, inclined to imagine that a whole bunch of people on a night out are going to be less well-behaved, egging each other on. This study, titled 'Drinking in Groups' and published in the journal Addiction, suggests the opposite is true.

While, fairly obviously, people who are intoxicated tend to take greater risks, their risky behaviour is significantly reduced when they're in a group. Rather than being encouraged to do stupid stuff, making decisions with others has a moderating effect.

“We think that this is because drinkers in groups monitor one another closely, becoming more cautious when directly asked whether to take a risk,” says Dr Tim Hopthrow from Kent's Centre for the Study of Group Processes.

This is the kind of positive collectivity associated with certain types of pubs, but not all. The importance of the research is that it generalises the effect to all kinds of environments, including the kinds of bars and clubs that people worry about most when it comes to disorder.

If it's true, we can be more optimistic about managing the night-time economy, harnessing the benefits, as well as the problems, that come when people gather in numbers.

Yes, pubs are great. But we have to believe that drinkers aren't so bad either.


Buckies and Barbies

20. May 2014 16:23

News that Buckfast Tonic Wine is going to be repackaged in 250ml cans for 'barbecue-goers' has generated some barely-stifled amusement in some quarters (i.e. these quarters). 

As you'll know, Buckfast is a drink with a certain reputation, a 15% abv fortified wine laced with caffeine that's become closely associated with disorder in the West of Scotland, specifically. The idea that it might challenge sophisticated Pimm's (25% abv from the bottle, but nobody drinks it like that) as an al fresco aperitif is the funny bit.

Another reason for the move, given by the brand's distributor J Chandler, is that it's a response to a call from Scotland's public health minister to make smaller measures of wine available. Buckie mostly comes in 750ml bottles, although half-bottles are available.

It's good that Buckfast recognises it has responsibilities here, and there might be something more in the can, so to speak. There's a school of opinion that much of the violence linked to the brand comes from the glass bottle rather than the inherent properties of the liquid.

Buckie is one of the demonised drinks, along with alcopops, white ciders and others in the past. But it's not the drink itself; it's the way it's drunk, the context, that's important. 

Buckfast isn't even that cheap. The new can will come in at 70-odd pence an alcohol unit, comfortably above the suggested minimum price. But will canning it make any difference? 

The smaller measure, equivalent to 3.7 units if I'm correct, is less than the recommended daily limit for a bloke, though being in a can means it can't be resealed like the bottle, so you do have to drink it all at one sitting. 

And, curiously, one of the reasons for superstrength beers and ciders being popular among street drinkers, along with the strength/price ratio, appears to be the convenience of the can. It doesn't break and it's less likely to get nicked than a bottle containing more alcohol.

I'm also one of those who worries about the caffeine (public health's drug of choice, judging by the stampede at conference breaks). Though, again, there doesn't seem to be a problem with Irish coffee. It's all about the context, you see.

Perhaps Buckie really can be remodelled as a barbecue drink. Pour it over ice into a tall glass and garnish with plenty of fruit, and who knows?


About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to
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