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.