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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


         Originally published in the Brewery Manual’s online UK Brewing News

More grey areas than a late Rothko  
Off licence bans on superstrength beers

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) has joined the drinks industry’s call for the European Commission to outlaw local licensing authority schemes that persuade retailers to remove high strength beers and ciders from their shelves.

Almost 100 councils are believed to have introduced similar initiatives following the apparent success of the Reducing the Strength operation in Ipswich.

Although the retailer boycott of beers and ciders above, typically, 6.5% abv is aimed at cheap super strength products and the people who tend to drink them, SIBA fears that its members’ premium ‘craft’ brews will be swept up alongside them.

While there appears to be little more than anecdotal evidence that this is happening, brewers have been asked to submit examples to support the organisation’s submission that the schemes breach European competition law.

“Our members take great pride in the excellence and range of their beers,” said SIBA managing director Mike Benner. “They make beers for everyday drinking, beers to accompany food, and beers for connoisseurs to savour and sip. Many of these are fabulous, complex brews of higher strength and great repute. 

“As a responsible organisation we absolutely support proportionate, effective measures to reduce alcohol misuse, but we do not support any intervention which is not within the law. We have significant concerns about the proportionality and legality of these schemes. 

“It is our understanding that licensed retailers who agree to participate in these schemes run a serious risk of infringing competition law by engaging in a coordinated boycott of certain products.”

SIBA’s, perhaps surprising, move comes in a week when doubts have been raised about whether such schemes are, in any case, effective.

Off Licence News reported that Newcastle, Portsmouth and Dover have experienced increases in alcohol-related disorder since introducing the initiative. 

Councils rushed to copy the Ipswich Reducing the Strength scheme when the Suffolk council reported that a year into its launch in September 2012 numbers of street drinkers had halved and there had been a 24% decline in ‘street drinker events’.

What wasn’t perhaps emphasised enough was that the Ipswich super strength ban was just one point in a 36-point plan called ‘Start Afresh’. This included the appointment of outreach workers to make contact with and offer help to 70 identified street drinkers, along with a wet centre where they could more easily be found and talked to.

Police also made use of Section 77 notices to move drinkers from their regular spots, and the council went as far as giving migrant drinkers their air fare home to get them off the streets.

Removing super strength beers and ciders from 64% of the town’s off licences might well have contributed to the disruption of street drinker lifestyles, but outside the context of a range of multi-agency interventions it’s not clear how it helps.

That’s not the only problem. As SIBA has highlighted, trying to target a section of the population through a product they are perceived to consume is fraught with difficulty and confusion. How do you make sure you’re not accidently hitting the wrong products and the wrong people?

Police and local authorities have insisted that it’s only the cheaper super strengths they have in mind, and some have produced named lists of the brands they want off the shelves.

But because they have to be seen to be voluntarily boycotting products retailers may conclude it’s simpler and safer to include everything above a higher strength.

While some, most notably the East of England Co-op group of stores, have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get good PR and move up-market, other shopkeepers have felt cajoled into the ban, worried they might get on the wrong side of the licensing authorities if they don’t comply.

There are examples of new shops that have agreed to have a super strength ban incorporated into the conditions on their licence. By a similar logic, only this week a craft beer store in Cleethorpes promised to introduce minimum unit pricing in order to secure a licence amid opposition.

The industry’s case in Europe rests on whether local licensing authorities have made concerted efforts to coordinate these boycotts, rather than approaching retailers individually.

But there are more grey areas here than a late Rothko.

Phil Mellows
27th July 2015

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