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        The politics of drinking

May 28, 2014







The strength of the drinks industry's alcohol pledge

An odd story appeared in The Guardian over the bank holiday. It's a favourite time for odd stories to appear, of course, what with skeleton journalistic staff scratching around for something to fill.

It's from what The Guardian describes as “a little noticed Department of Health report” that was actually punted out by parliamentary news agency Randall's as long ago as April 28. “Little noticed” means journalists didn't read it. I certainly didn't. I did pick up on The Portman Group's comment welcoming the news that 253 million alcohol units had been removed from the UK drinks market, exactly on track for the industry's Responsibility Deal pledge to take out a billion units over four years.

So that's all good, I thought. Except that The Guardian has belatedly spotted that the average strength of drinks has actually gone up. Now I was confused. Even more belatedly I was forced to read the bloody thing myself.

Neither The Guardian nor The Portman Group are lying, you'll be relieved to hear, but The Guardian, while delighting those for whom the drinks industry has no other goal than killing all its customers, has rather missed the point.

The average strength figure has risen because people are drinking less beer and more wines and spirits, and while the average strength of beers and ciders have decreased the average strength of wines and spirits have increased.

There's a good explanation. The strength of spirits is extremely unlikely to fall, since, if you want to call your drink a scotch whisky, for instance, by law it has to be at least 40% abv. Premiumisation driven by connoisseurship and a growing interest in more complex spirits means strengths, if anything, have crept higher for these up-market segments since it's alcohol that carries and deepens much of the aroma and taste.

This, I would argue, is a positive when it comes to improving our relationship with alcohol. I touch on it here with respect to cider, but it applies to all drinks.

Wine is a trickier example. As is well known, the strength of wines have generally increased with climate change, and as fermentation is a natural process it takes a lot of effort to manage down strengths without losing quality. And people won't buy wine that doesn't deliver on flavour.

We have seen a lot of lower strength wines launched, typically at 5.5% abv, but their success has been patchy. It's going to take time for the consumer to gain confidence in these products.

Which brings me to another point. The DoH report charts only the first year of the pledge, 2011/2012. It's barely had time to get out of the chair.

What the critics also have to understand is that the industry is commercially incentivised to make lower strength drinks. They attract less duty and use less raw materials, and if people are happy to keep buying them at about the same price, they're more profitable.

Even before the Responsibility Deal brewers were introducing 4% versions of 5% beers with considerable success. Since then 5% versions have been trimmed to 4.8% without anyone complaining. According to the DoH report it's mainly these weaker beers that have taken units out of the market.

Whatever the motives, you can't blame the industry for selling this as an example of its social responsibility. It's playing by the rules of a medical temperance ideology that wants to reduce harm by reducing overall alcohol consumption.

Despite the elaborate calculations of the DoH I'm not totally convinced you can accurately measure the health impacts of these shifts in abv. The real value of efforts to broaden the choice of lower alcohol drinks may be more subtle.

If there's a decline in alcohol consumption it's likely to be partly driven by a significant number of people who, if not quite counting every unit, are taking note of what they're drinking and making conscious efforts to cut down. And the market, in its clumsy way, is responding to them.

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