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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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         The politics of drinking

September 10, 2010



A special brew: consumer profiling the average tramp

A headline in The Guardian caught the eye last week: “Super-strength alcohol ‘is killing more homeless people than crack or heroin’”.

The words are those of Mike Nicholas of outreach charity Thames Reach. I have little doubt that he’s right. All I have to do is stroll down the hill here to find homeless people. The current beverage of choice appears to be Carlsberg Special Brew, which has been a resilient brand in this marketplace.

I remember some time in the 1980s London listings mag Time Out (or it might have been the other one, City Limits) doing a blind tasting among tramps who were asked to choose between Special Brew, Tennent’s Super and Kestrel Super. I think Carlsberg won. But usually their choice would be based not on flavour profile but on price.

In terms of price sensitivity the tramp is a sophisticated consumer, brand-switching with agility to get the biggest bang per buck

This is why I think Nicholas and others are wrong to call on the government to raise the tax on super-strength lagers and ciders. The alcoholic on the park bench will simply switch to the next cheapest source of alcohol.

Before the super-strengths it was British wine and sherry, fermented from imported grape must. And before that it was meths. I just about remember meths. In fact I remember clearly as a child staring curiously at the lips of these strange characters stained  purple by the dye used denote this stuff as poison.

The hope is that these people will switch to weaker lager if they’re priced out of super-strength. But a can of Stella is unlikely to perform the fast top-up on blood alcohol levels required. It will be something else. Maybe something worse.

There is much confusion around alcohol pricing, reflected in the Guardian sub-editor’s choice of the word ‘alcohol’ in that headline. At 9% ABV a lager might be super-strength compared to other lagers, but it’s not compared to wines and spirits.

As part of the government consultation on alcohol taxation Diageo, which makes Smirnoff vodka, Gordon’s gin and Guinness among many other drinks, proposed ‘full equivalence’ between different types of alcohol, which means while beer keeps going up the duty escalator, tax on spirits will be frozen.

That’s all right for Diageo as most of the spirits it sells are cheaper to make and are more profitable than beer. The UK brewing and pubs industry is outraged. J D Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin called the drinks giant “a bunch of morons” and threatened to withdraw its products from his pubs. Always good value, Tim.

And he’s right. Do we want cheaper vodka and more expensive beer? What will that do to the consumption patterns and liver of the average tramp?

Another wrinkle is that homeless people aren’t actually able to buy the really cheap deals available in the supermarket. For one thing they can’t afford multiple purchase – you don’t see them carrying big slabs of beer around – and for another the supermarket is too public a place to shop. They go to the local offie or convenience store.

Which brings me to my other concern. There is a massive guilt attached to alcoholism. A stigma that prevents people acknowledging that they have a problem and holds them back from seeking treatment.

This was brought out recently in an important report by the UK Drug Policy Commission and applies to alcohol as much as to illicit drugs.

If we want to get people out of the hole they’re in we should be addressing this kind of question, not adding to their stigmatisation by demonising what they’re drinking, and by association demonising them.

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