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Too much confusion on all sides about problem drinking

If I said ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ to you, what would come to mind?

For me, it would be malt whisky – my favourite high strength alcoholic drink. It’s the perfect end to a special evening. If I have too much of it, it’s the thing that gives me a hangover like nothing else, so I keep it at arm’s length, a rare treat – after all, it’s at least 40% ABV. You have to treat stuff like that with respect.

But for legislators on alcohol, a ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ is nowhere near that high – to them, high strength alcohol is 6-7%. In fact, they’d like it defined as anything over 5.6% ABV.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the ongoing debate about the impact of alcohol on Britain’s health, this might strike you as bizarre and useless because it classes almost all alcoholic drinks as ‘high strength alcoholic drinks’ – ALL spirits, ALL wines, fortified wines and sherries, liqueurs, and quite a few beers and ciders. To legislate against all of those is tantamount to total prohibition.

But then, those seeking to tackle problem drinking seem to have an entirely different definition of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’. Apparently, wines that average 13.5% ABV, spirits that average 40% ABV, sherries that average 17% ABV etc. are not high strength at all. But a beer of 7%ABV is.

I just did a Google picture search using the phrase ‘high strength alcohol’ to illustrate the absurdity of this position. But it seems it’s me that’s being absurd by believing that 7 is a lower number than 13 or 40. Here are the first product images that search returns:

Ah yes, of course. Once again, if we’re talking about alcohol in the context of it being a problem, it must be beer or cider.

I started thinking about this because of a report in The Grocer magazine the other week which said that local authorities are seeking voluntary bans on ‘high strength alcohol’ – a story that was illustrated by the final picture above. After plans to introduce a minimum unit price were dropped, more than twenty towns and cities in England have introduced bans on what they and The Grocer and the rest of the media specifically refer to as ‘high strength alcohol’ in their attempts to reduce problem drinking.

I don’t oppose attempt to curb problem street drinking. And I agree that for the most part (but not exclusively) the drink of choice of the problem street drinker is what we commonly refer to as ‘super strength’ lager or cider. But this laziness with terms – making high strength beer and high strength alcohol synonymous – highlights just how little anyone understands alcohol and how careless we are with legislating it.

If a wine were 7% alcohol, legally it wouldn’t be allowed to be called wine – it would be too weak. But this same alcohol level in beer is considered dangerous. This is why any beer over 7% must already pay extra duty, thanks to a clumsy measure that makes no distinction between a strong, flavourful craft beer that costs nearly a pound per unit of alcohol and something vile like White Lightning that currently retails at an average of 25p per unit.

Measures like this denigrate the overall image of beer and cider and muddy our understanding of relative strengths. If they referred to ‘high strength beer and cider’, then we’d only have the problem of trying to distinguish between the cheap stuff that’s consumed purely for it’s intoxicating effect, and the higher strength stuff that stretches the boundaries of what quality beer can be. But when drinks of 7% are banned while drinks of 13-17% are considered exempt, we have a much bigger problem, not least of which is that hardcore street drinkers will simply move on to cheap sherry, which is more than double the strength of what they’ve just been told they can’t drink.

As the above pictures demonstrate, if ‘high strength alcohol’ is commonly only understood to apply to super strength beer and cider, then as well as being patently absurd it also continues to make beer and cider the scapegoats for problem drinking, when as anyone who has ever been to a pub or known a non-street drinking alcoholic knows, most problem drinkers favour spirits, and wine is playing its part too.

So what can we do?

Well, brewers and cider makers could always stop making the nasty drinks that are causing the problem in the first place.

The manufacturers of super strength beer and cider offer defences such as ‘We should focus on the problem drinker, not the drink’ and ‘They’d just move onto something else’. I agree with both these points – in fact I just used the last one two paragraphs ago. They are true, valid arguments. But that doesn’t excuse the manufacturers of such products.

It’s simple: if anyone who makes revolting crap like this

can look me in the eye with hand on heart and say that their main target audience is NOT the problem drinker looking for the biggest bang for their buck, I’d love to hear it. If you have any evidence that moderate drinkers include these products within their repertoire and drink them responsibly in small measures, I’d love to see it.

Since I left my full-time advertising job, on my occasional dabbles into marketing it’s becoming clear to me that marketers do not see their ‘consumers’ as real people. When you reduce everything to a PowerPoint presentation of pie charts and graphs and brand essence models full of euphemisms and jargon, this insulates you from the fact that your C2DE male 35-54 budget-conscious consumer is an alcoholic who you are helping to kill.

And when manufacturers and retailers look to legal action to overturn voluntary bans on their products so they can carry on helping kill people – well, then you’ve dropped any pretence of being anything other than nasty, amoral bastards with no sense of the social consequences of your actions – a purely sociopathic organisation.

The manufacturers of these products profit from the alcoholism of troubled people. And while they’re doing so, they damage the image of beer and cider generally, and quality high strength beers and ciders in particular.

So problem drinkers would move onto other products? Fine, it would no longer be beer’s problem. And more importantly, we would start to think of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’ in a way that has some bearing on reality.

We should focus on the drinker rather than the drink? Absolutely we should. But that does not mean we should happily carry on selling these concoctions to them while we wait patiently for local authorities and government to figure that out.

It’s not just black and white. Except when this entire issue is explored in one of Viz magazine’s truest characters – then it’s black and white.