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

Friday 21 October 2016


Back in February 2012 Alcohol Concern published a report titled ‘White Cider and Street Drinkers’ which highlighted the impact these drinks have on homeless drinkers. Earlier this month the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), an umbrella organisation that represents around 40 bodies from “public health” which consistently demonise alcohol and seek to de-normalise its use, have published a piece of faux research that generated headlines like “Alcohol continues to be sold at pocket money prices – AHA report finds”. And what alcohol are they referring to? You guessed it – white cider.

The AHA partner-organisations involved in preparing this report were the Institute of Alcohol Studies; Alcohol Focus Scotland; Balance, the Northeast Alcohol Office; and Healthier Futures. So what did this bunch of neo-temperance nannies actually do? Apparently they visited a range of off-sales premises “looking for the nation’s cheapest booze” - nothing like starting with a conclusion and then selecting evidence to ‘prove’ it – all in the name of science of course! Over 500 products were examined, but despite this they highlighted only one - white cider, which they described as “dominating the market for cheap, high-strength drinks”. And they went on to say that “High-strength white cider products, which are predominantly drunk by dependent and underage drinkers, are sold for as little as 16 pence per unit of alcohol”. The report goes on to dramatize the problem further by stating “For the cost of a standard off-peak cinema ticket you can buy seven and a half litres of 7.5% ABV white cider containing as much alcohol as 53 shots of vodka”.

So, what is the purpose of this report – what does the AHA hope to achieve? The demands made by the AHA on the back of this report are for government:
  • To increase the duty on high-strength cider
  • Reinstate the alcohol duty escalator
  • Upon leaving the EU, tax all alcoholic drinks categories in proportion to their strength, and
  • Implement a minimum unit price on all alcoholic drinks
The AHA’s strategy today is exactly the same as Alcohol Concern’s strategy back in 2012: to selectively demonise drinks’ categories that have only marginal market penetration, link them to groups of ‘vulnerable drinkers’, and then leverage the demand for alcohol restrictions on a much wider scale. Remember ‘alcopops’ and ‘vulnerable young drinkers’? Even at its peak this category accounted for less than 3.5% of the total volume of alcohol consumed in the UK. Remember ‘toffee vodka’ aimed apparently at ‘vulnerable young girl drinkers’? 

And if white cider is “dominating the market for cheap, high-strength drinks” the AHA forgets to mention that this category accounts for about a tenth of one percent of the total volume of alcohol sold in the UK. Yet these categories are held up as typical examples of a drinks’ industry out of control and unconcerned about the social impact of its products – and therefore “something must be done”.

Typically, the AHA links the demand for higher taxes for white cider to higher taxes for all ciders, which would involve levelling-up cider duties to match beer duty rates. We surely need to separate the lower taxes that are designed to protect our indigenous cider industry from the purchase of the cheap, foreign apple concentrate that is used in the production of super-strength white cider. Demonising drinks’ categories by reference to ‘vulnerable groups’ is a way of emotionalising the issues and softening up political and public opinion for further restrictions on all drinks and all drinkers.

Whilst I am neither a drinker, nor a defender of these particular ciders, I think we should be wary of those who proffer simple solutions to complex problems. Dependent drinking isn’t caused by the availability of a particular ‘problem drink’; it is highly linked to depressive illnesses and other mental health problems as well as a complex set of other social and psychological issues. The desire of dependent drinkers to numb this pain doesn’t go away if you ban or tax a particular drinks’ product. There will always be a substitute, whether it’s an alcoholic one or some other substance. And as for white cider being a favourite tipple of underage drinkers, curiously that was never mentioned in Alcohol Concern’s report in 2012, but maybe they missed a trick. Before anguished, hand-wringing meddlers cry “what about the children” they should perhaps remember that underage drinking is in sharp decline and the vast majority of underage drinkers get their booze from their parents or steal it from home.

Paul Chase

Friday 7 October 2016


According to ‘The Times’ Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, recently told a private meeting with 100 food producers that eating out is “no longer a treat” and that chain restaurants, takeaways and fast food retailers should reduce the size of their puddings, cakes and pastries – and those that don’t will be publicly named and shamed! It is hard to think of a more egregious example of nanny-state meddling than this. But what is this based on and how will it work?

Apparently consumers will be able to check companies’ efforts on a website, although exactly how comparisons will be made has yet to be decided. This comes alongside food producers being asked to cut sugar in key products by 20% over the next five years, and the introduction of the sugar levy on soft drinks’ producers, due to come into effect in 2018. This is all about the government and Public Health England engaging in the ‘war on sugar’ in order to combat the ‘obesity epidemic’. Simply giving people information and letting them make a free choice is no longer enough - “Doing nothing is not an option”, Hunt said.

So, let’s just look at a couple of facts. There is no doubt that adult obesity has increased over the past 40 years across the world. The number of people in the UK with a body mass index over 30 has risen from 8% of the population to around 30%. Obesity is strongly associated with a number of chronic illnesses, particularly type-2 diabetes, although obesity is by no means the only cause. The question at issue here is how strongly is sugar consumption implicated in the rise in obesity and its related diseases? It is not so long ago that the fat content of our diet was regarded as the main cause of obesity, since when dietary fads such as the Atkins Diet have suggested that carbohydrates, which break down into sugars, are now regarded by many as the new ‘bad guy’ on the block.

Sugar consumption peaked in the UK in 1961 at just over 50 kilograms per capita. Today it is just over 30 kilograms, so the rise in obesity has correlated with a fall in the consumption of sugar added to our diets, including the sugar added to dessert products. But all sugars are not the same. Or are they? Insofar as blood sugar levels are a health worry, it is important to note that the blood sugar concerned, glucose, is not the same as the sugar we add to our tea or coffee, which is sucrose. Sucrose is a combination of two simpler sugars - glucose and fructose - which are separated when sucrose is digested. A great deal of concern has also been expressed about the use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but EU regulations strictly control HFCS production so it is far less commonly used in the UK than it is in the United States.

Whilst sucrose is an important source of glucose in the Western diet it is by no means the only one. Foods high in starch such as potatoes, rise, pasta and bread also break down into sucrose once consumed. So, even without food products that contain added sugar the switch from diets high in saturated fats to ones high in carbohydrates – which was official advice for nearly 40 years – will have increased our consumption of sugar.

A lot of the government policies in relation to diet and disease seem to reflect the views of noisy campaign groups like ‘Action on Sugar’. The justification they provide for government intervention is that ‘Big Food’ and ‘Big Sugar’ (like ‘Big Alcohol’) are engaged in a deliberate strategy of addiction. Sugar, according to Robert Lustig, the activist academic behind Action on Sugar, is an addictive substance and much of our food, particularly processed foods, is deliberately spiked with sugar to keep us hooked. And of course alcohol is an addictive substance too! This fantasy of a conspiracy of addiction leading to a form of covert corporate coercion is the basis on which groups like Action on Sugar seek to persuade government that people don’t really make free choices when they buy Jamie Oliver’s Eton Mess, or a can of cola.

It seems to me that people have plenty of information about the content of what they eat and drink and that there are a wide variety of ‘healthy choices’ available to them. Government intervention is only justified if there is a failure of the market to provide either information or choice and that is clearly not the case.  But that won’t stop nanny wagging her finger! Now, where did I put my pack of M&M’s?

Paul Chase