Thursday 15 December 2016


It may have escaped your attention, but Alcohol Concern (AC) and Alcohol Research UK (ARUK), the UK’s two leading anti-alcohol sock puppet charities, are to merge. This merger has consequences for the way in which anti-alcohol advocacy will be conducted going forward, but first, a little bit of history:

Alcohol Concern and the International Order of Good Templars
The International Order of Good Templars, or ‘IOGT International’ as they now refer to themselves, was the most zealous of the clutch of anti-alcohol groups that sprang up in the 1850s. Despite the repeal of Prohibition in America in 1933, it remained in existence as a hard-line anti-alcohol sect until the 1970s, when its leader Derek Rutherford, recognising that campaigning for the outright prohibition of alcohol was a lost cause, moved IOGT to an apparently softer line of campaigning to reduce alcohol-related harms. Initially, in the UK, IOGT worked with the National Council on Alcoholism, which later evolved into the anti-alcohol advocacy group Alcohol Concern (AC).

The two groups parted company in 1982 after a row with the new chairman who said he had no time for “a bunch of Methodist teetotallers.” IOGT walked out and Rutherford, along with Andrew McNeill set up the Institute of Alcohol studies as an alcohol research organisation. So, whilst the National Council on Alcoholism and IOGT parted company, the legacy organisations they spawned have their roots deeply embedded in historical temperance.

Alcohol Research UK (ARUK)
ARUK is another organisation with its roots in historical temperance. Indeed, today 70% of its income is derived from returns on an investment fund that arose out of the Licensing Act 1904! The government of Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour established the ‘Licensing Compensation Scheme’ to compensate licensees who lost their licences through no fault of their own, but as a result of action by local Justices to close down premises in areas where they deemed there was overprovision. The scheme was funded by a levy on all licensed property, from £1 on small beer houses to £150 on large hotels. The scheme was not popular with either side in the alcohol/society debate, with temperance campaigners dubbing it the “Brewers Endowment Fund” and brewers calling it the “Mutual Burial Fund”.

The scheme didn’t last for long, but the money collected was not returned to the trade from whose pockets it had been picked. The fund was left in abeyance, and it wasn’t until the 1981 Act that half of the residual funds were transferred via a liquidator to establish the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC). In 2011 the AERC was wound up and the investment fund was transferred to a new charity, Alcohol Research UK.

The merger
On the 7th December 2016 there was a joint press release announcing that AC and ARUK are to “merge” by April 2017. Why has this happened? If you look at the published accounts of both organisations this gives you a clue. AC has struggled to fund itself since it lost core funding from the UK government in 2012. It still receives taxpayers’ money from the Welsh Assembly government totalling £185,108 in 2016, with its second biggest funder being the Big Lottery – Pembrokeshire which contributed £62,459 in the same year. In the recent past AC has received money from the pharmaceutical industry for its support for a treatment for ‘mild alcoholism’ that was marketed as ‘Selincro’. However, in 2016 its expenditure exceeded its income by some £72,330 and it is apparent that AC struggles to make ends meet, and if the UK government isn’t going to finance its sock puppet activities using public funds to lobby for public policy change, then its long-term future looked uncertain at best.

ARUK, on the other hand, is losing even more money, with its expenditure exceeding its income in 2015 by £317,701. Whilst this is a much bigger budget deficit than Alcohol Concern’s, ARUK does have a dependable source of income from its historical investment fund of £15.7 million, which delivered £548,855 in 2015, with just £51,972 from voluntary donations and an income of just £17,864 from “charitable activities”.

So, when is a merger not really a merger? Well, the CEO of the newly-merged organisation will be Dave Roberts, who currently heads up ARUK. AC’s current CEO Joanna Simons was appointed with the specific remit of looking at options for its future strategy and she will leave in April 2017, when the merger is accomplished. Emily Robinson, AC’s deputy CEO has already left. So, it appears that ARUK will gain AC’s income of around £950K a year, lose the cost of the two biggest earners from its payroll, and, presumably merge the two offices and save even more cost. All very sensible.

But what will really remain of AC’s campaigning efforts in the future? ‘Dry January’ will presumably still go ahead in January 2017, but after that will it be retained, rather like Fidel Castro’s cigar, as the signature symbol of a dead icon, or will it be dispensed with? I guess that will depend on whether AC’s funders are prepared to fund the AC part of the merged charity.

And what will be the position of those key figures in ARUK who insist that theirs is an objective, independent research organisation, now that they are about to acquire an organisation dedicated to advocacy and campaigning? ARUK states that its aim is to “reduce levels of alcohol-related harm by ensuring that policy and practice can always be developed on the basis of research-based evidence”; whereas AC states that they “work throughout England and Wales towards our vision of a world where alcohol does no harm”.

There is a big difference between reducing levels of harm, and creating a world where alcohol does no harm – which, given the mantra of “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption” - can only mean a world without alcohol. Whose vision will prevail? Given the tendency of anti-alcohol groups to undergo Trotskyite-like splits, will this marriage of financial convenience last, or might the Institute of Alcohol Studies and IOGT win-out in the neo-temperance merger stakes? We’ll have to wait and see.

Paul Chase

Friday 9 December 2016


In terms of the ongoing culture war in relation to alcohol, there have been three signal developments over the past 12 months that I think will reverberate over the course of 2017. They are: the development, and publication in January this year, of the UK CMOs’ new, ‘low risk’ drinking guidelines; the establishment of the House of Lords all-party committee inquiring into the Licensing Act 2003; and the decision by the Scottish Inner Court of Sessions that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is, after all, lawful – a decision which the Scotch whisky association (SWA) has now announced it will appeal to the Supreme Court in London.

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and what the likely developments mean for the trade in beverage alcohol:

The ‘low-risk’ guidelines
The real significance of the new alcohol drinking guidelines is not that they set a new, low-risk level of 14 units a week alcohol consumption for both men and women, but the assertion that there is “no safe level of consumption”. Any pretence that official advice on alcohol consumption was about influencing drinking behaviour, and encouraging moderate consumption, was destroyed when the new ‘low-risk’ guideline was set at a level that was widely derided by the drinking public and the industry alike as having no basis in the reality of peoples’ drinking habits. Since “public health” has no belief in the efficacy of education as a driver of social change, because they believe it’s a soft option embraced by Big Alcohol as a means of warding-off real change, the only purpose of the new guidelines was to influence public policy. Specifically, alcohol policy.

Fundamental to this latest attempt to demonise alcohol is a determined effort at science-denial. Denial that there are any health benefits to moderate alcohol consumption despite decades of science showing that regular, moderate drinking results in lower all-cause mortality and greater longevity than that associated with abstinence. Coupled with this is the attempt to link low and moderate consumption of alcohol with a range of cancers on the basis of, largely, very weak epidemiological associations.

By establishing the “no safe level of consumption” and the “every time I reach for a glass of wine I think of the cancer risk” mantras, “public health” seeks to establish through propaganda what it can’t establish through science: that alcohol can’t be part of a healthy lifestyle.

The House of Lords committee on the Licensing Act 2003
The positive aspect of this review of the effectiveness of the Licensing Act 2003 is that, by all accounts, their Lordships really do “get it” – they are very much aware of the issues and the differences of opinion and are seeking evidence. My concern at the outset of this inquiry is that it was just a cover for seeking the introduction of a fifth licensing objective – ‘Promoting and Protecting Public Health’, or even ‘Promoting and Protecting Health and Welfare’.

If we were to see the introduction of a ‘health’ licensing objective, then this would open the door to all the career alcophobes of so-called “public health” like James Nicholls from Alcohol Research UK, and Jon Foster from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, to encourage local PCTs to oppose applications for new licences. It’s probably not a practical possibility for them to do this for every application, but if your fundamental belief is that it’s the availability of alcohol that drives consumption and harm, then under what circumstances wouldn’t you object?
Minimum unit pricing
The Scottish Parliament legislated to introduce this in 2012. Since then it has been subject to legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others in respect of whether its implementation was contrary to European Union competition law.  In Scotland the Outer Court of Sessions ruled it was legal, but then the Inner Court of Sessions quashed that decision and sent it off to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to be determined. The ECJ pretty much gave it the thumbs down, but returned it to the Scottish courts to determine. They gave it the thumbs up!

The position now is that the SWA wants to appeal this to the Supreme Court in London and have lodged an application with the Scottish Court for leave to appeal. The SWA’s decision to appeal has, of course, been subject to expressions of faux outrage by the cranks at Alcohol Focus Scotland who have characterised the decision to appeal as an affront to democracy! Comments like “it beggars belief” etc., etc.

I am opposed to MUP because I think it is a bad policy; if it also turns out, eventually, to be unlawful, then I think that would be enormously helpful. But, then we’re supposed to be leaving the EU aren’t we? So whether we continue to be subject to ECJ rulings will depend on whether we want access to the single market.

All three of these issues will continue to make waves in the coming year. Watch this space!

Friday 4 November 2016

Hangover-free alcohol

I’ve been meaning to write about Professor David Nutt’s attempts to create a hangover-free form of alcohol for some time, but haven’t got round to it until now! Professor Nutt, you may recall, was an advisor on illegal drugs to the then Labour home secretary Alan Johnson. He suggested that ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse riding. Now, in terms of death and injury, on a purely statistical basis, he may have been right, but the comparison shows a not-real-world naivety in terms of how he must have imagined this would go down with his boss, who promptly sacked him.

But the good professor is nothing if not consistent. His new product, fetchingly called alcosynth, will, he says, replace regular alcohol by 2050. He has stated that: “The drinks industry knows that by 2050 alcohol will be gone. They know that and have been planning for this for at least ten years. But they don’t want to rush into it, because they’re making so much money from conventional alcohol.” Well, I have been accused of being quite close to the drinks industry, but the last time I spoke to “Big Alcohol” it never mentioned this to me! Sounds like a bit of wishful thinking from an entrepreneurial academic pushing what is, essentially, a kind of “legal high” with a novel marketing plan. It is unclear to me if alcosynth would be unlawful under the New Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, but I suspect it would.

According to Nutt, he has invented a form of synthetic alcohol that will allow people to enjoy the sociable effects of a few pints, “but skip the hangover that usually follows”. Quoted in the Independent he said: “So we know where the good effects of alcohol are mediated in the brain, and can mimic them. And by not touching the bad areas, we don’t have the bad effects.” You can have the pleasure without the pain! What an affront to puritanical thinking, no wonder Alan Johnson sacked him!

Advocates of alcosynth believe it could revolutionise public health by relieving the burden of alcohol-related harms on the health service. Now, I’m all in favour of finding private sector solutions to public health problems, such as e-cigarettes, which provide a safer nicotine delivery system to the conventional one that involves setting fire to a tube of tobacco and inhaling the smoke, but I really don’t think the comparison holds up. In addition to alcosynth, we have also recently seen the development of a powdered form of alcohol called Palcohol – flavoured, powdered alcohol added to water; and also vaporised alcohol that you can inhale. The government has now altered the legal definition of alcohol to include the powdered variety. 

Now, powdered alcohol and alcohol vapour producers don’t claim their products can deliver problem-free intoxication, but the development of all these products plays into the hands of the alcophobes of “public health” because one of the techniques they use to de-normalise alcohol use is to take the drinking of it completely out of its social and cultural context and say it is “just another drug”. Once we separate ethyl alcohol from beverage alcohol – from the tradition of craft and flavour, and the use of natural ingredients and local provenance – then those of us who defend the drinking of beverage alcohol as a lawful and socially acceptable activity are placed in an untenable position. 

There is, of course, a much simpler way of avoiding a hangover, and that is to drink in moderation. Also, it is unclear whether Professor Nutt’s alcosynth will deliver the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption – you know, those benefits that “public health” are in denial about – such as reduced risk of all-cause mortality and reduced incidence of ischaemic heart disease and stroke. 

Nice try professor, but I don’t think I’ll be abandoning my pint of IPA just yet!

Friday 28 October 2016


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:

Dear James 

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. 

Paul Chase