Homeless charity Thames Reach has called for restrictions on the sale of super-strength lagers. The charity went head to head with drinks industry body the Portman Group and shared their views with Andrew Mickel
“Increase tax on strong lagers,” says Jeremy Swain, chief executive, Thames Reach
Without change we will continue to see thousands of deaths. In our Vauxhall hostel we have four homeless people who will probably die in the next six months as a result of drinking super-strength lagers such as Tennent’s Super, Carlsberg Special Brew, Skol Super and Kestrel Super.
Homeless people are not very popular with the public, who don’t understand why they can’t just stop drinking. Sometimes we can pull people out of that lifestyle, and they can get on with their lives. With others we can’t. If they continue drinking, then in the last month of life they go yellow as their organs pack up. In the final few days they start bleeding from every orifice, and then they die.
On the side of a can it says your limit should be three to four units a day if you’re a man, and next to it is the number of units in that can. Put it on a can of super-strength lager and it becomes a nonsense because it has more than four units in it.
We put the case to the Portman Group‘s independent complaints panel that this encouraged immoderate drinking. They found against us: they said that by drinking a can or a bottle of wine you can exceed the guidance limits. But with wine, you could be sharing it and there’s every opportunity to recork the bottle.
We’re not in any way puritanical about this. We know that you need to have premium lagers on the market. But you can’t find super-strength lagers in pubs because breweries would be viewed as behaving irresponsibly. I thought the companies would tell me they had statistics that Doris in Dartmouth likes a can with her evening meal, but they’ve pretty much admitted, in my view, that it is drunk by people with alcohol dependency problems. Tennent’s Super is quite a potent symbol of inner city decay, so day in, day out, the company is receiving bad publicity.
The way homeless people use these super-strength lagers is similar to drugs drinking them to achieve that sense of losing control. For example, they will hold a can horizontally and pierce a hole in the side, because in doing so they prevent it bubbling up and they can get a much stronger hit.
In our experience, if we can get homeless people onto something that is half the strength their behaviour changes dramatically and their health improves.
Tax could be reduced on weaker drinks, and increased steeply when they reach 7.5% alcohol and upwards. In Australia this is how they moved people on to the weaker lagers. Between 1990 and 2000, while the UK saw an increase in drinking, Australia adjusted alcohol prices resulting in a reduction in the overall alcohol consumption. But I don’t think companies are voluntarily going to take their products off the market unless there’s an economic driver.
Off the back of our campaigning, InBev reduced the size of the Tennent’s Super can to 440ml [from 500ml], which brings it below that four-unit ceiling. They’ll lose money for that, so good for them. But drinkers probably won’t even notice the change, and will buy the same number of cans. They certainly won’t drink 15 cans and think ‘I haven’t drunk as much today’.
This is a small step, but I won’t be happy until I see these drinks in a price range that means they won’t be found in our supermarkets or small retailers.
See the ThamesReach website at http://www.thamesreach.org.uk
“Don’t blame the industry,” says David Poley, chief executive, Portman Group
“The Portman Group’s independent complaints panel understood Thames Reach’s concern, but noted that the government advice on sensible drinking is expressed as guidelines – not strict limits – for men to not regularly drink more than three to four units a day, or women two to three. The panel thought it was inappropriate to adopt a strict threshold below which you would say everything is responsible and above which everything is irresponsible.
There is also the problem of what constitutes a single-serve drink container. It is hard, in the panel’s view, to objectively distinguish between a can of beer and, for example, a bottle of sparkling wine, which once opened will go off. It has to be consumed like a can of lager, but it’s going to have nine units of alcohol in it. You could end up either having to find all these things as problems, or risk being accused of creating inconsistencies.
You’re getting into the area where you are almost criticising the consumer behaviour rather than the container. It might be custom and practice that people drink a can in one sitting and they are more likely to share a bottle of wine. If we put super-strength into bottles does it make them more likely to share it? In effect, you are saying that lager is a bad product consumed by drunks, and wine is a good product that is consumed by moderate drinkers. You are going to have some people drinking lager moderately and some people bingeing on wine. Every drink can be misused it doesn’t mean that everyone drinking the cheapest product has a problem.
There is a legitimate market for these types of products. When we talk about super-strength lager, people might think of the cheap products, but it includes some very high-end, premium beers which are imported from the continent and are enjoyed by connoisseurs. If one sought to do away with them altogether, you’d be getting rid of some of these premium products.
You could say you’ll get rid of it by taxing them to make them more expensive, but the issue is really the problem drinkers, not a problem drink. They will find the cheapest way of getting their alcohol fix. If they can only buy weak products, they will drink more of them.
The thing is to make sure that super-strength lagers are not marketed in a way that encourages immoderate drinking, and they’re not sold on the basis of their strength. The panel actually had a problem with Kestrel, because they thought the strength message went too far.
If you’re talking about street drinkers, they’re not going to read the side of the bottle and look up the website. But the industry is working to make sure people are informed about the dangers of misuse. But once you reach the stage of alcohol dependency, it is beyond the control of the industry and a matter for statutory authorities.
The independent complaints panel welcomed InBev’s [which brews Tennent’s] decision to reduce their can size, but it is down to other companies to decide whether they should follow. It is not something we would insist on under our code of practice. But, in reality, I don’t think it is going to make a huge difference to the level of misuse.”
This article is published in the 28 August edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Are the brewers over the limit?
• Read one person’s story of how alcohol nearly destroyed their life
‘I used to drink about 15-plus cans of super-strength lager a day’