The Losh Cause – Binge drinking makes industry an easy target

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The binge-drinking debate is once again grabbing the headlines in the UK, as supermarket chains look to react to widespread criticism over the discounting of alcohol. Chris Losh believes the drinks industry is an easy target for a government looking for simple solutions to complex problems, but nevertheless remains prone to shooting itself in the foot.

There is a superb Gary Larson cartoon showing two deer. The first has a large target on his chest, and the second is saying sympathetically, "Bummer of a birthmark Hal."

Now, for me, the drinks industry is that deer with the unfortunate birthmark. The product it sells is always (Mediterranean Paradox notwithstanding) going to be seen as unhealthy, and trails myriad social problems in its wake, from town-centre violence to alcoholism.

Frankly, it's an easy target, even when it's doing its best - as now - to keep its head down. But the industry is paying the price in an avalanche of negative press for failing for way too long to realise that it was ever in danger. To continue the metaphor: having stood on its hind legs against the horizon and whooped loudly enough to attract every hunter for miles, it's now desperately trying to hide under a tiny bush as the rifles are lowered.

Incredibly, it's only ten years ago that 'alcopops' were the big story and the industry was rightly being vilified for trying to sell alcoholic lemonade to juveniles. It was the sort of mind-bogglingly stupid strategy undertaken by people who had no concept of the inherent danger of the product they were selling.

This attitude persists today. I've read columns by well-respected journalists who see nothing wrong with drinking a bottle of wine a day, while the bigger drinks companies talk blithely about demographics and SKUs as though they were selling tins of beans.

Well, high-strength lagers, bottles of fortified wine and cut-price vodka might, like toilet rolls or pizza, be products, but the similarity with beans ends there. It's a bit like assuming that because nitroglycerine and bleach are both chemicals you can handle them the same way.

That's why it's hard not to feel overcome with cynicism at the shenanigans in the UK over the last fortnight as Tesco and Asda have fought what appears to be a PR battle in addressing the issue of binge-drink Britain. The UK's powerful supermarket operators have, let us not forget, banked billions in their booze aisles through aggressive price promotion.

Asda's 'zero tolerance' approach to underage drinking grabbed headlines but, since it seems to amount to little more than a removal of the ability to buy alcohol between midnight and 6am, is, I would suggest, little more than symbolic.

Meanwhile, Tesco's calls for mandatory price rises (just-drinks 21 February) looked for all the world like an April fool come six weeks early. Particularly since the supermarket was simultaneously offering 30% off packs of Guinness.

I could practically hear the hollow laughter from suppliers all round the world who've spent the last ten years funding BOGOFs and double-digit discounts. The irony was delicious and jet black, the supermarket's casuistry breathtaking.

It is, of course, too little too late. The British government (and press) have 'done' (roughly in order), dangerous dogs, ecstasy and smoking over the last decade. Drink (and obesity) are next, and moves by the industry to stave off legislation needed to be implemented years not weeks ago.

And yet, having berated the drinks industry for its inactivity on this issue, I can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for it, too. It's true that there are dreadful problems with anti-social behaviour in Britain. But while the latter may be exacerbated by alcohol it's pretty obvious to me that the problem is more fundamental than that, taking in everything from social immobility and educational implosion to the breakdown of the family.

Booze, I would suggest, is being used as a scapegoat by a government that has not the slightest idea how to go about tackling a growing underclass and their attendant problems.

In fact, while paralytic 18-year-olds might make the best press coverage, the heaviest drinkers are the middle-aged middle classes. They might not be downing shots and smashing up town centres, but with their G&Ts and their nightly bottles of Rioja they get through more booze in a week than their children.

Of course, drinking to excess isn't clever. But being lectured on the joys of moderate consumption by MPs (how many bars in the Houses of Parliament?) is like having Genghis Khan explain the benefits of a policy of non-violent intervention.

The British Medical Association has called simultaneously for a reduction in licensing hours, and an increase in duty. There's no evidence that either of these measures will work, but they'll play well in the press for a government that wants to be seen to be doing something rather than genuinely addressing the powerful currents at work beneath the surface.

Better, in other words, to be seen to be firing off lots of shots at one easy target than to be taking careful aim at a series of tricky ones. Which is bad news if you're born with a target-shaped birthmark.

Sectors: Beer & cider, Spirits, Wine

Companies: Guinness

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