On Friday the 21st October Propel Opinion published an article written by me titled ‘Old Cider in New Bottles’ in which I discussed the significance of a piece of research done by four member organisations of the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) into how cheap white cider is still being sold at “pocket money prices”. I pointed out that Alcohol Concern had published a very similar piece on strong, cheap white cider in 2012, and that creating moral panic around ‘demon drinks’ was just a well-rehearsed way of smearing the entire drinks industry.
This article was also published on my blogsite ‘A Menace to Sobriety’ where it attracted a response from Dr. James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK. ‘ARUK’ is a neo-temperance charitable trust that has legacy funding from the ‘Licensing Compensation Scheme’, a licensed trade levy established under the Licensing Act 1904 to facilitate reductions in the number of licensed premises – which kind of tells you where James Nicholls is coming from. In his response Dr. Nicholls angrily defended the AHA research and attacked my article. His full response can be read on my blogsite. Below I have responded to the main points that James Nicholls makes:
Thanks for your reply to my article. I am disappointed if the only message you can take from this is that I “object to any concerns about alcoholic drinks from any quarter”. I don’t; in fact, I make it clear in the article that I am neither a drinker nor a defender of strong white cider made from cheap apple concentrate. I actually wish this stuff was simply not produced; not least because its production provides a stick to beat the sector with, for those so inclined.
You also complain that I reject ‘whole population’ approaches (to alcohol-harm reduction) “out of hand”. Firstly, insofar as I am opposed to whole population measures, such as minimum unit pricing, I have rejected such measures only after full and due consideration. But, actually I am not opposed to all whole population measures. Let me give you two examples of such measures that I favour: the system of licensing for the sale of alcohol; and alcohol duty. Let’s take each of these in turn.
What is a licensing system if not a set of measures to manage the risks of alcohol misuse across the whole population? Licensing is where we square the circle between the individual’s freedom of choice and societal impacts. You and I might differ about how effective the present licensing system is at doing that, but we agree that there needs to be a system. I have certainly never suggested that the sale of alcohol should be completely deregulated and replaced by a free-for-all.
In relation to alcohol duty, again, we might disagree about the level of duty or about whether it needs to rise, but I accept the principle that if alcohol misuse causes ‘negative externalities’ that result in a cost to the public purse, then the state is perfectly entitled to recoup these costs from alcohol drinkers, even if the tax is not hypothecated. Indeed, as the research produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs (‘Alcohol and the Public Purse’, Snowdon 2015) makes clear, the amount of money collected from alcohol duty, and VAT on alcohol duty, exceeds the cost of alcohol to the public purse by some £6 billion a year.
You also comment that “I know you believe everyone expressing any concern about alcohol secretly wants to force the entire population onto sugar-free lemonade, but I'd have thought even you would realise that white cider arguments really are not the thin end of a whole population wedge.”
James, I’m guessing that this was your attempt at mockery, but let’s just pretend for a moment that you were trying to make a serious point. In January we saw the publication of the CMO’s low-risk drinking guidelines – 14 units a week for both sexes; this was coupled by the declaration that “there is no safe level of drinking”; and to dramatize just how unsafe any level of drinking really is we were given an insight into Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies’ anguished personal lifestyle choices: “Before I reach for my glass of wine I think about the cancer risk.” It seems to me abundantly clear that both the direction of travel and the destination that “public health” has in mind for alcohol is identical to that for tobacco – the end-game is an alcohol-free world, or as close to it as they can get. And that objective certainly isn’t a secret!
And do you mean to tell me that sugar-free fizzy drinks aren’t a health community ambition? I’m shocked.
My article simply suggests that singling out ‘demon drinks’ in the name of saving ‘problem drinkers’ from themselves, is little more than a neo-temperance marketing ploy that uses a drinks category with negligible market penetration to leverage further restrictions on all drinks and all drinkers - precisely in order to reduce consumption across the whole population. If you doubt that, then just look at the demands that the authors of this research make on the back of it: increase the duty on high strength cider (regardless of whether it is the cheap variety drunk by problem drinkers); reinstate the alcohol duty escalator; tax all alcoholic drinks according to their strength and implement minimum unit pricing.
Finally, you indignantly complain that: “individuals or organisations concerned with reducing alcohol-related harms - however much you may dislike them - are within their rights to draw attention to the issue.” Well, of course they are – even neo-temperance lobbyists like ARUK can do so! A difference of opinion is just a difference of opinion James; it’s not an attempt to suppress opinions I don’t like. This is a classic example of a paranoid “public health” pivot - claiming that criticism is an attack on your right to free speech is just a way of distracting attention from the angry silliness of what you have to say.