December 2009

Nutts About Drugs
The argument that cannabis is safer than alcohol seems to be a very hazy one

THE FURORE over the sacking of Professor David Nutt as Government chief drugs adviser has overshadowed any serious debate about his very questionable argument that many illegal drugs are in fact less harmful than alcohol.

Those advancing this view invariably cloud the issue by confusing the overall impact on society with the effect on individuals. Obviously, given the prevalence of alcohol in society, it is perhaps not surprising that more people in total experience harmful effects, and nobody is denying that, if consumed to excess, alcohol does you no good. But is it true that it is more dangerous on a proportionate basis? I really don’t think so. Indeed, when interviewed on the radio, Nutt refused to be drawn on whether the harm caused by ecstasy, proportionate to the number of users and the frequency of use, was less or more than that caused by alcohol, and indeed seemed to waffle and prevaricate on the issue.

Many people drink alcohol as much (if not more) for the taste as for the effect. I’m not aware that you can say that for any other drug. And, more importantly, alcohol can be consumed regularly in moderation throughout an adult lifetime without any adverse health effects, and even with some small benefits. Can that really be said for cannabis, ecstasy, LSD or cocaine? Many other distinguished scientists have questioned Nutt’s stance on this, for example Professor Robin Murray of King’s College, London, pointing out that regular cannabis use, even at a very “moderate” level, has been proved to impair memory.

Professor Nutt also said that “parents should be aware that the drug that is by far the most likely to harm their children is alcohol”. Across the whole of society, that may be true, but no drug can harm you unless you actually use it. Obviously parents don’t want their teenage offspring either drunk on Diamond White or stoned on skunk, but on an individual basis I’m sure the vast majority would prefer them to have a glass or two of wine or beer rather than a daily joint.

Everyone Must Suffer

You would not believe from the media that alcohol consumption was falling rapidly

IF YOU WERE to believe the media, Britain is in the grip of an unprecedented alcohol crisis, with consumption rocketing upwards to record levels. However, when you look at the facts, they tell an entirely different story. Despite the introduction of “24-hour drinking”, average consumption has been falling steadily for the past five years, and indeed at present is now dropping at the fastest rate since the late 1940s.

This does not seem to tally with reports that drink-related liver disease and hospital admissions with a link to alcohol abuse are both rising, and in some town and city centres there is a continuing high level of alcohol-related disorder. It is often argued by anti-drink campaigners that reducing the overall level of consumption through higher taxation and other curbs will bring about a proportional reduction in social and medical problems. However, it is clear this is not happening in the UK, and it seems that all the adverse propaganda dissuades responsible people from even moderate drinking, while the irresponsible continue undeterred.

Surely this suggests that, rather than hitting all drinkers with a big stick, we need a much more targeted approach to alcohol problems that leaves the sensible majority alone.

November 2009

Keeping Drinkers in the Dark

An alcohol advertising ban would favour big producers, not small ones

THE BRITISH Medical Association have recently called for drastic restrictions on the sale and promotion of alcohol, one of which is a total ban on advertising. It’s highly questionable, though, whether this would have any effect on consumption levels, as there is plenty of evidence that while advertising may affect brand choice, it doesn’t change people’s minds as to whether or not to have a drink. You don’t need an advert to prompt you to go to the pub or to pick up a few bottles from the off-licence. Tobacco advertising has been banned for a number of years now, yet smoking rates have hardly fallen off a cliff.

You wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t for alcohol advertising, as that’s what pays for this newsletter. And how could you run a beer festival if you couldn’t tell people that you were actually going to be selling beer? Would a pub be able to say outside that it belonged to Robinsons or Holts, or even that alcoholic drinks were available at all within? Subject to a basic requirement of honesty, surely the ability of manufacturers of products to provide consumers with information about them is a central aspect of free speech.

Some people naïvely assume that banning advertising would help small-scale producers by preventing the big boys from mounting expensive promotions. However, in reality it is likely that the effect would be exactly the opposite, tending to prop up established players and well-known brands. If you can’t advertise products, it makes it extremely difficult to introduce new ones, so a market without advertising ends up stagnating and becoming ossified.

In the absence of any other information, people inevitably would end up asking for familiar products they had had before, or which their friends were drinking. Those brands that had been well-known before the ban came in would benefit from continued recall and recognition that no new entrants would be able to challenge. There could also be a return to simply ordering generic products such bitter, white wine or whisky, which again would militate against anything new or different.

Chopping Down the Grapevine

Informal promotion of alcoholic drinks would inevitably be targeted too

THERE ARE, of course, other ways of promoting alcoholic drinks apart from paid advertising. An important feature of the alcohol market, and one in which it differs markedly from tobacco, is the enormous amount of information disseminated about drinks that is not paid for directly by producers. There are societies devoted to the appreciation of beer, wine and spirits, magazines, guide books, newspaper columns and a growing number of internet listings and blogs.

Most people with a serious interest in alcoholic drinks will probably get much more information from these informal sources than from conventional advertising. Obviously, though, there is plenty of scope for behind-the-scenes manipulation by drinks producers, which would assume more significance if advertising was outlawed. But do the doctors really want a situation where the “Good Beer Guide” became a banned publication and you would be committing an offence if you wrote in a newspaper article or on a blog that you had a good pint of Robinson’s in the Arden Arms? Given the immense possibilities of spreading information through the grapevine, it’s hard to believe they would be happy to leave it alone.

October 2009

Don’t Castrate our Cat

Conservative plans to triple duty on “high-strength” products are ill-considered and indiscriminate

Robinson’s Old Tom is a beer of which Stockport can be justly proud, a complex, high-quality strong ale suited to considered sipping rather than reckless bingeing. It has been voted CAMRA’s Champion Winter Beer of Britain on several occasions and recently won an award of World’s Best Ale. Yet its future would be threatened by Conservative plans to triple the rate of duty on “strong” beers and ciders above about 5.5% ABV.

While it is true this category includes some cheap, high-strength products that are favourites with problem drinkers, it would also affect many beers from independent breweries in the same vein as Old Tom, Belgian imports such as Chimay and Duvel and the products of pretty much all of Britain’s independent cidermakers. These products are consumed responsibly by discerning drinkers and are often already relatively expensive in terms of price per alcohol unit. In any case, it is not usually beers and ciders in this strength band that fuel alcohol-related disorder, or feature in supermarket discounting.

This is an ill-considered and indiscriminate plan that would not achieve its stated objectives and would penalise many respected products that in general are not consumed irresponsibly. It also unfairly singles out beer and cider when wines and spirits cannot be absolved of all blame for our alleged drink-related problems.

The present government, especially over the past few years, has been very bad news for the pub trade and for responsible drinkers, but at a time when there seems to be a general tide of anti-alcohol sentiment in society it may be naïve to assume that an alternative would necessarily be much better.

Don’t Knock It Till You Try It

The hysterical reaction to a beer for connoisseurs exposes the hypocrisy of the anti-drink lobby

The difficulties involved in blanket targeting of “strong” beers are highlighted by the reaction to Tokyo*, a limited-edition brew produced by iconoclastic Scottish brewers BrewDog. This is an imperial stout weighing in at a mammoth 18.2% ABV, but at the same time priced at an eye-watering £9.99 for a 330ml bottle.

BrewDog have established a reputation for ruffling the feathers of the drinks trade establishment and the anti-alcohol lobby, and, rather predictably, Jack Law of “Alcohol Focus Scotland” frothed: “It is utterly irresponsible to bring out a beer which is so strong at a time when Scotland is facing unprecedented levels of alcohol-related health and social harm. Just one bottle of this beer contains six units of alcohol - twice the recommended daily limit.”

This seems more than a little hypocritical when for £9.99 you could easily buy a bottle of cheap whisky or vodka containing 28 units of alcohol, and a price of £1.67 a unit is surely enough to satisfy even the most ardent anti-drink zealot. This no more contributes to problem drinking than does a bottle of cask-strength Islay malt retailing at £40.

Beer writer Pete Brown sampled a bottle and, while finding it deep, rich, complex and satisfying, said “The idea of anyone binge drinking a bottle of this beer, of knocking it back quickly, is utterly absurd. I defy anyone to drink a bottle in under an hour. You actually don't want a full bottle of it.” It’s frankly impossible to visualise Tokyo* taking the place of Tennent’s Super in the hands of Rab C. Nesbitt lookalikes stumbling around the streets of the Gorbals. They’re unlikely to have even heard of it in the first place. A beer such as this is to be savoured, not poured down your neck.

And you have to wonder whether Jack Law actually tried it before rushing to condemn it. Almost certainly not – he’s probably a teetotaller anyway.

September 2009

A Weak Argument

The call for promotion of very weak beers fails to understand the realities of the beer market

CAMRA’s call for duty to be scrapped on low-strength beers of 2.8% ABV and below was a predictable publicity ploy to coincide with the launch of the Great British Beer Festival. But I can’t help thinking that this is a misguided idea that shows a failure to appreciate the realities of the beer market and panders to the current climate of anti-drink hysteria.

It is difficult to brew beers of such low strength with much flavour and character. Many of the old-style milds and boys’ bitters were very bland, and were designed to be drunk in large quantities by industrial and agricultural workers wanting to restore fluid levels after a hard days’ work. However, as society changed and people became more prosperous, they started switching to bitters which were more expensive, but had more taste and body. In the early 1990s, some of our local brewers introduced cheap “economy” bitters at around 3.2% ABV, such as Hydes’ Billy Westwood and Boddingtons’ Old Shilling. When well-kept, these could in fact be surprisingly tasty, but they never really took off in the marketplace and were dropped after a year or two.

People drinking in pubs are not generally motivated to choose cheaper drinks to save money, otherwise mild would still be all the rage, and it has to be recognised that one of the main reasons people drink beer is because it actually does contain alcohol. Ordering a cheap, weak beer is hardly a very “aspirational” choice in the pub and comes across much more as a distress purchase. If people want to cut their alcohol consumption they will tend to drink “less but better” rather than making a conscious decision to go for weaker drinks. And the idea that micro-brewers would be able to sell 2.8% beers for substantially less than stronger ones is misplaced anyway, as they benefit from Progressive Beer Duty and thus pay a greatly reduced rate of duty in the first place.

Standing Room Only

Why are pubs so reluctant to provide an adequate amount of comfortable seating?

In another area, I recently called in to a pub – more a bar really – that had been chosen by the local CAMRA branch as their Pub of the Year. There was a good range of mostly local real ales and a wide selection of interesting bottles, so you could understand why it won the award. But I was struck by just how little decent seating there was in the place. One section had a few high-level posing tables, another expansive, low-level sofas that allowed one to sit where five could normally be accommodated, and only the third a scattering of tables with loose chairs. If the pub had standard wall-mounted bench seating in all three areas it could probably cater for three times as many seated customers.

Surely the lack of seating must impact on trade – it baffles me why pub owners sacrifice capacity in this way in the interest of appearing trendy. Maybe late at night they are packed with standing customers and too many seats would get in the way. But, for most of the day, customers are likely to be looking for somewhere to sit, particularly if they want to eat as well as drink, and in this particular establishment could easily conclude there was no room even if there were only about four groups already in the place. Wetherspoon’s are another major offender on this score – many of their pubs have vast areas of floorspace with a few freestanding tables dotted around, and often don’t seem busy even when all the tables are taken.

August 2009

With Friends Like These...

The professed sympathy of anti-drink groups for pubs is just weasel words

With the pub trade under so much pressure nowadays, you could be forgiven for thinking that pubs would welcome any friend they could get. So step forward Don Shenker, chief executive of anti-drink pressure group and fake charity Alcohol Concern. He says he wants to work alongside CAMRA to look at ways of helping well-run pubs to survive. Unbelievably, he says Alcohol Concern is “not an anti-pub organisation. What we are in favour of is responsible drinking, retailing and selling of alcohol.”

He went on to say “We share the concern around the high degree of pub closures in the country and want to see protection for pubs that are well run. I really want to support the community pubs. It’s important to support a pub where alcohol is being regulated; the problem with drinking at home is it isn’t regulated.”

This is all a bit rich coming from an organisation that has opposed every liberalisation of licensing laws over the past three decades, championed every piece of anti-drink and anti-pub legislation going and consistently campaigned for higher alcohol taxes and prices and a drastic reduction in overall alcohol consumption. You have to wonder whether he choked on his sarsaparilla as he said this.

Even in the best-run community pub, you will routinely see people drinking enough alcohol to qualify as a “binge” in the government’s description, some of whom will end up getting boisterous, or even a bit “worse for wear”. It is hard to see how this conforms to Shenker’s view of “responsible retailing”. And if every customer stuck to Alcohol Concern’s recommended maximum of a pint and a half per sitting it is difficult to imagine many pubs staying in business.

Of course, the real nature of his agenda was exposed when he went on urge pubs to offer smaller servings of drinks, and to lower the alcohol content of drinks so people can consume the same volume but take less alcohol. I'm sure people will be flocking down to the Dog & Duck to drink thimblefuls of watered-down beer.

In reality, Shenker loathes pubs and all they stand for with every fabric of his being. He would like to see as many as possible closed down and the few that remained turned into anodyne, emasculated eating houses. Anyone seriously concerned about the future of pubs should avoid at all costs being seduced by his weasel words.

Never on a Saturday

Why are pubs so quiet at a prime leisure time?

The proportion of people who work from Monday to Friday and have the weekend off is a declining one, but it’s still a majority of the working population, and includes me. So I often like to relax over a couple of pints on Saturday lunchtime, but I'm struck by how quiet pubs are then. Apart from those right in town and city centres, most do a very thin trade, and many are virtually empty, including ones in prominent, busy locations offering extensive food menus, and others only a stone’s throw from busy shopping streets.

I've remarked in the past how people don't go in pubs like they used to, and certainly not at lunchtimes, but even so, this still applies to establishments that are heaving on Friday and Sunday lunch. The only conclusion must be that people tend to be out and about doing various bits of business on Saturdays, and look upon Sundays much more as a day for relaxing. And Sunday lunchtime is often quieter than it used to be, too…

July 2009

Is the Price Right?

The idea that supermarket prices are killing pubs does not stand up to analysis

“THEY’RE SELLING Carlsberg at 30p a bottle at the supermarket down the road,” an aggrieved licensee complained to me. “How can I hope to compete with that?” You can understand her concern, and of course she can’t come close to competing on price terms, but in reality she doesn’t have to.

Throughout my drinking career, alcohol in the off-trade has been cheaper than that bought in pubs. The gap may have widened a bit over the years, but it has always been there. A licensee has to pay business rates, utility bills and staff wages, none of which you include when thinking how much the can or bottle you’ve just got out of the fridge has cost. The overheads a pub has to carry mean that it is always going to be dearer than just sitting at home, and surely all pubgoers realise that. A pub is far more than just an alcohol shop and in reality its main competition for people’s leisure spending is restaurants, cinemas, sports grounds and bowling alleys.

Nobody claims that restaurants are suffering because you can buy ready meals at Tesco for a third of the price of dishes on the menu, so the idea that pubs are suffering because cans of Stella are dirt-cheap doesn’t really stack up. People don’t sit down and make a calculated economic choice between going out to the pub and staying in with a few cans. If they want to go out, they will go out, and going to the pub should be as much about socialising as simply drinking alcohol. Many pub visits happen when people are out of the house anyway, at work, on holiday or shopping, so the option of drinking at home is not available to them. Obviously, if intoxication is the sole objective, the most cost-effective way of doing it is with cheap cider or spirits from the off-licence, but should pubs be targeting people who just want to get drunk anyway? On the other hand, cask beer, which is generally of moderate strength, is a unique selling point for pubs that cannot be replicated in the home.

Of course price can have an impact on the margins, maybe leading people to go out a little less often, or to tilt the balance a little from on to off-trade consumption. But relative price isn’t even the biggest single factor leading people to drink less in pubs. There are many other reasons leading people to drink more at home and less in pubs, such as the decline of heavy industry, the increasing popularity of wine and the tendency of employers to discourage lunchtime drinking by their employees. Lifestyles have changed and society has moved on. And the idea that raising the price of alcohol in the off-trade will do anything to encourage people to visit pubs is totally misplaced.

In Continental countries such as France and Germany, off-trade prices are considerably lower than ours, and the gap between on- and off-trade greater, but they do not have the same problems associated with off-trade consumption as we supposedly do, and in many cases have much more thriving bars. This suggests that the root causes are in social factors rather than simply price levels as such.

June 2009

Night Half-Life

Is Stockport’s night-time economy in need of revival and, if so, how?

A RECENT Friday night pub crawl around central Stockport found a couple of perfectly decent pubs very quiet, and the Underbanks eerily deserted at around 10 pm. Some pubs such as the Crown, Railway and Arden Arms do well, but overall Stockport very much lacks the vibrant “night-time economy” of many of the other major towns in Greater Manchester. There’s also a marked dearth of restaurants in the town centre over and above the usual fast food outlets. It seems as though, if people want a good night out, they head off to Manchester rather than remaining in the town.

So what could be done to make the town centre a bit more lively and welcoming in the evenings? One major factor must be the effective banning of traffic in the town centre streets. Pedestrianised streets may work during normal shopping hours, but in the evening they turn an area into a dead zone. If the dreaded rising bollards on Underbank were permanently retracted after 4 pm, and traffic was allowed along Princes Street after 6 pm, it could well make a big difference.

However, you have to be careful what you wish for, as it is highly likely that a revitalisation of night-time Stockport would mostly just lead to the spread of chain bars and takeaways. As an alternative, maybe what Stockport needs to do is to promote its unparalleled collection of high-quality traditional pubs rather than just trying to ape every other town centre in the region. “Stockport - the civilised night out” might not be too bad a slogan.

Punch Drunk

The recession has exposed the pub company business model as unsustainable

FOR A NUMBER of years, I’ve held the view that the giant pub companies were ultimately unsustainable. The key reason for this was that they had no unique selling proposition. It’s quite clear what differentiates a Robinson’s pub, or a Wetherspoon’s pub, from the competition, but what does a Punch pub have that an Enterprise Inns one doesn’t? They were far more driven by financial engineering than pub retailing.

Now, with the recession, the chickens are really coming home to roost, with Enterprise and especially Punch Taverns in an increasingly precarious financial position. Apparently Punch’s debts now exceed the total value of their property portfolio. In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that they’re engaged in a fire sale of their crown jewels to various family brewers. In the South-East, Fullers, Charles Wells and Adnams have benefited from this, and now in the North-West first Lees and now Robinson’s have bought tranches of pubs from Punch.

In the longer term, this is likely to lead to a major shift in the balance of power in the pub trade away from the pub companies as heirs of the former Big Six national brewers towards the family brewers, who were once derided as an anachronism. You have to wonder whether the heirs of defunct companies such as Home and Vaux might feel a twinge of regret about selling out. And how long can we expect the giant pub companies to survive in anything like their current form?