Alcohol, The New Cigarettes?

The Too Long Didn't Read Synopsis

Alcohol is bad and causes direct and indirect strains on the NHS, emergency services and society. Alcohol is also great and provides jobs, contributes to the economy and is a big part of our culture because as a country, we can be sociably awkward. Despite this, its current popularity provides no safe haven against forced industry change and it is fast becoming enemy number one.  The whole industry needs to bring about change to ensure it is leading the future instead of having its actions dictated by industry outsiders. 

Dry January might seem like a distant memory, but I think it’s time to reflect on what initiatives like this and Sober October along with new legislation such as the reduced drink driving limit are doing to the health of the population and as a result to the drink industry.

I’m keen to open a discussion as to whether alcohol and health can go hand in hand. All the initiatives above focus on health and it would seem that their existence flies in the face of a thriving, yet possibly slow to react* booze industry.
*alcohol has been proven to slow reaction times*

Dry January and Sober October are both designed to encourage people to address their relationship with alcohol. Consumers are reminded of how unhealthy alcohol is, they’re encouraged to reduce their consumption and a plethora of photos showing 'before' and 'after' shots of someone’s waistline during their self-imposed alcohol ban do the rounds on social media; helping re-enforce the message that alcohol is Satan in liquid form*. With these two initiatives, there is just one culprit, alcohol, but these aren’t the only movements that have an impact on the industry. There is another that is much more controversial, so much so, that even criticising them can create quite a backlash for the obvious reasons.
*Apparently the devil is a fan of cheap bourbon and misguided product redesigns aimed to appeal to marginalised drinkers*

I am, of course, talking about drink-drive limits and here, the stats speak for themselves; reductions in alcohol-induced accidents and deaths reported since Scotland introduced a lower limit. One thing is clear, lives are being saved by people thinking about how and where they consume alcohol – but there is a counterclaim that there is an economic and cultural downside to what has been a well-managed and enforced initiative.

Regardless of your opinions on any of the above, it is apparent that people drinking less will no doubt have a positive impact on the NHS spending a few years down the line.

The key fact is this: alcohol is unhealthy.

In fact, it is terrible. Alcohol is the second most dense form of energy after fat.  A gram of sugar contains almost half the calories (4kcal) of a gram of pure alcohol (7kcal). Furthermore, we’ve all heard the tale, if alcohol was discovered today, it would be categorised as a class A drug, and for good reason…. go to any A&E across the country and you will see why.

Over 1 million people rely on the NHS support for alcohol-related injuries or diseases each year. With liver disease being one of the top 5 killers in the UK, you’d be forgiven for seeing alcohol as a key risk to the health of our population and added burden to a worsening NHS crisis.

And the question is, is it worth it? Economically? Taking a full-blown capitalist approach you could break every minute figure down, but even some numbers of the back of a cigarette packet (we’ll come back to these shortly) will indicate:

HMRC raise approximately £11bn from Alcohol Duty
NHS Spends an estimated £4bn on Alcohol-Related Treatments

So on the economic face of it, yes. But what this doesn’t take into account are added figures from both sides. There are wages and VAT income from people working in the sector, also the social and criminal costs of alcohol misuse, which one study put at £55.1bn alone!

(It cited private health care costs, loss of employment, criminal damage, and importantly public service costs such as social care, emergency services, and even the criminal justice system. Interestingly, this study used ‘spending on alcohol above guideline levels’ to curate its figures which I feel weakens its argument in order to produce a larger figure).

Furthermore, unlike cigarettes, alcohol has been linked to obesity and if that wasn't enough, the links between obesity and cancer are becoming clearer and we haven't even brought up mental health issues which are now being pushed forward on the health agenda. It is becoming easier to link alcohol to a range of other large challenges that the NHS is facing in the near future.

With regards to the future, what was interesting from my research was just how trends are changing, especially amongst younger users. Binge drinking along with drinking and spending as a whole, across all ages is down, but alcohol is becoming less desired by younger consumers and the ‘non-legal drinking age' minors are seeing a change in attitude towards it as well. 

These initiatives are working, consumption is dropping, and people are becoming more aware of their drinking habits. Which could spell trouble for the drinks industry.  And just like the cigarettes industry, I feel the alcohol industry is heading full speed towards a cliff (under the legal drink drive limit of course).  A decade ago sticking cigarettes behind unbranded cabinets seemed absurd, and to do the same with alcohol, currently seems equally bizarre, but the question is already being asked and if the industry doesn’t take a lead, it could well be the future. Moaning and protesting isn't going to save us.

I feel there is this belief that because alcohol is, in many instances, a big part of our culture, it won’t/can't be affected, no one would touch it! After all, around 57% of the population drink alcohol each year - but majorities can swiftly change. In 1974 50% of men and 40% of women were smokers - in recent years those figures are closer to 18% and 14% respectively. Cigarettes still cause more direct deaths than alcohol, but with consumption down and considering the indirect health issues attributed to alcohol mentioned earlier, an industry, that is becoming less popular can still easily become new enemy number one. As a business, the reluctance of prominent cancer, diabetes, mental health charities and even weight loss plans to work alongside and with us is indicative just of that. No one can be seen to engage with alcohol.

The current alcohol movement is subtle yet effective. Alcohol is under attack and if the industry doesn’t start to take more responsibility for bringing about positive change, then don’t be surprised if the public, the government and health experts do. Some will argue that initiatives such as Drink Aware along with the investment alcohol conglomerates make into the promotion of responsible drinking are enough but this isn’t just an issue for the big uns. With craft increasing in popularity, there is a need for the individual distiller/brewer/vineyard owner to do their bit too. And we need something more extreme than some good campaigns. We need change and some of that needs to be legislative - and when it comes to the law, it has to be championed by the industry itself.

The recently announced sugar levy only impacts soft drinks – brands with more than 50g of sugar per litre will be taxed. Alcohol won't be touched, yet...

Over in alcohol land we break all the rules. As the only  area of the food and drink market that doesn't legally require the display of nutritional info it might come as no wonder that we can flaunt sugar taxes too. After all, ask any A&E worker and they'll tell you fizzy drinks are the real killer!

In our world, we do the opposite and impose legal minimum requirements for sugar of 100g/ltr in liqueurs and 250gr/ltr in crème de fruits. Rather than be worried about the health impact of their products on their own consumers, a lot of producers are debating whether the tax might make it to alcohol and also on the fact that consumption levels for liqueurs are lower than those of soft drinks. It seems to miss the point completely.

I'll repeat the point above. Instead of imposing maximum sugar levels, the law actually requires a legal minimum on sugar and alcohol by volume (abv)!

EU laws aside, closer to home, The Portman Group, like many charities, are cautious. They discourage and limit/prohibit health claims (for the right reasons) but in doing so unconsciously discourage businesses from being innovative and creating products that may well be 'healthier' for the end user but ultimately, as a result, harder to market.

Minimum sugar limits and banned promotion of healthier alternatives is a strange club to be part of in the 21st Century and is completely against what health professionals are screaming out for. No wonder the war against booze is well underway and if in the UK, alcohol loses, it could spell the end to small craft brands and by consequence, choice. The big conglomerates can follow the cigarette model and invest more into developing markets, but eventually, as these mature, they too may go the same way.

There is a choice here, and I believe the main element depends on open conversation and an acceptance that what we sell, is, in fact, a toxin. We don’t need to feel guilty or bad about it – drinking too much water quickly can kill you! I’d argue nothing in the food and drink space is completely clean. It is all about moderation, no matter the vice.

Everyone knows alcohol is bad for them - us aknowledging and taking responsibility for that fact isn't going to cause suprise and panic across the globe.
Humans drink and a current look at sales shows we love it, why? Because it is amazing! It’s a social glue, it allows our introverted island(s) to shed it’s awkward posterior and let our hair down. It’s responsible for good (and bad). And it’s demise would be heart-breaking. Would the Romans or Greeks have contributed as much to modern technology without alcohol?  Would Churchill have led these shores to victory in WWII without gin?

Ok - that is probably (definitely) a stretch…. however, alcohol brings about a different range of creativity, sociability, ingenuity and even the occasional sprinkling of immaturity but overall a wealth of positive experiences. Alcohol, when consumed properly, is fun; fun that you can’t put a £ sign next to. It is historic! It is our culture!

But culture can change. History proves it's necessary to do so every once in a while.
Attitudes changed towards cigarettes as the science caught up - but after cigarettes came vaping – I somehow don’t see powdered alcohol substituting in for a social gathering after work. And the idea of the 'local' relying on newly taxed sugar water to pay its way doesn't instill me with confidence for the on-trade.

Change has to come and it has to come from within.
From the producers through to the on and off-trade sellers.

Alcohol is the one social drug that has a reliable and ethical supply chain. Isn't it about time to think more ethically about how we make our living and work together, craft and conglomerate, to be more transparent about ingredients, clearer with messaging and rather than ignore health trends and changes, move with them – my fear is, if WE don’t take the initiative, outsiders will and then alcohol will risk becoming the new cigarette.

Further reading: (see downloads at the bottom for good analysis and stats)

Some Cool Brands:

Minus 33 - 'Gin' (obviously)
Skinny Brands - Beer
Thomas & Scott - Bubbles



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