Back to blog page

Alcohol policy. Moving beyond the evidence-base...?

On 11/04/14 by Andy Tighe (Policy Director)

A number of recent reports, conferences and proposals have questioned whether in a desire to ‘do more’ and ‘go further’ to foster the culture of responsible drinking in the UK that we all aspire to, we are moving well beyond what is rational, evidence-based policies. This ultimately risks being counter-productive and damaging.

The rush of local authorities and police forces to promote schemes ‘banning’ stronger beers and ciders following the apparent success of the “reduce the strength” campaign in Ipswich is a worrying example of this. Putting aside concerns around competition and licensing law issues, the logic appears flawed in many cases. In Ipswich, following a number of deaths among street drinkers, seventy-five individuals were identified with an ambition to try and accelerate getting these individuals into treatment programmes and provide the necessary support to help them with their alcohol addiction.

This was called the Start Afresh programme with a thirty-six point action plan. Removing from shelves the products favoured by street drinkers was one such action and seen as a way to help facilitate engagement by either these individuals switching to drinking lower-alcohol products (and so be more coherent when approached by support workers) or realise that rather than trek to somewhere that did still stock these drinks this could be the trigger to seek treatment for their addiction.

Out of all the thirty-six measures put in place, this was the one measure that appears to make the least sense yet has caught on as the ultimate panacea. There are many other products of equal strength (e.g. British wines) or much greater strength (table wines and spirits) that can still be purchased with no problem. Despite the fact that street drinkers may prefer cans of strong lagers and PET bottles of strong cider for convenience and price – to think that these products somehow cause a different effect than the same quantity of alcohol (or indeed a greater concentration of alcohol) in other drinks, or indeed that someone with a serious addiction will simply not just buy a bottle of cheap wine or sherry or a small bottle of vodka, is very difficult to believe. If one were being cynical you might think the attraction of this one measure is that it appears to be a cost-free.

Perhaps equally concerning is a proposal to somehow enshrine in law a restriction on the maximum amount of alcohol in a particular package format...four alcohol units in a can and fifteen units in a PET bottle...on what evidence and where does this end? If, as is suggested, this is to help people drink within recommended daily limits then where does fifteen come from or, if this is also primarily aimed at street drinkers, are they really going to stop at one (now slightly cheaper) can to stay within the Government guidelines or consume their bottle of cider over three to four days?
For brand owners and retailers to take action to help reduce the harmful use of alcohol is hugely important and should be strongly encouraged. If this involves reducing the strength of certain products, looking carefully at product portfolios and their appeal and even packaging then this is great and as it should be. Providing a greater choice of lower-alcohol products and encouraging the production and consumption of such products can also only help and can make a significant difference.

But seeking to ban certain beers/ciders or mandate the total units for certain package this really where the focus should be?

Next it will be perfectly acceptable to misrepresent science and scare people in to thinking that having a beer whilst cooking dinner is likely to result in a cancer tumour..but that’s a blog for another day.


Please login to comment.

Find a blog post

Refine your search here