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!