The success and legality of Reducing the Strength-style schemes rely on licensees voluntarily imposing the ban on themselves. And, while many might agree with the intentions of the measure, commercially they may be reluctant to comply – especially while there are other local retailers continuing to sell the products.
That’s when they start feeling the heat, with the authorities paying their businesses closer attention, as several businesses in Portsmouth have discovered.
Nigel Swan, secretary of the Portsmouth branch of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, said Trading Standards officers in the city were “taking the law to the nth degree in applying full compliance with licensing regulations” in order to exert pressure.
“They have carried out inspections in the past and chosen not to use their findings until they want something. If a retailer hasn’t complied with the request for a ban, they’ll start talking about minor infringements,” said Swan.
A number of members of the NFRN made a stand against the ban after meeting with Trading Standards before Christmas. Despite being assured that major multiples had removed beer and cider with an abv of 6.5% or above, a survey of local supermarkets revealed they were still selling them – and according to Swan they still have them on their shelves.
NFRN national president Colin Fletcher said the organisation had met with Portsmouth City Council to discuss its concerns.
“While our members support the principle of removing these products from the shelves on health grounds, any ban needs to be enforced by all retailers, regardless of their size. If the supermarkets refuse to take part, independent retailers would be put at an unacceptable disadvantage in what are already challenging times.”
And some authorities are even insisting new licences carry a condition banning beers and ciders above a certain abv. Bromley Police has insisted that one established retailer clear products and prices with it before agreeing to a licence for a second shop.
However, a spokesman for Portsmouth City Council denied Trading Standards officers were bullying retailers into compliance.
Alan Knobel, alcohol strategy coordinator, said: “This scheme is voluntary, retailers do not have to sign up.
“As we visit stores to promote the scheme, we will be reminding stores outside of the scheme of their legal responsibility not to serve alcohol to drunks and will be providing advice to ensure they comply with the four licensing objectives.
“We are promoting the scheme in a persuasive way, highlighting the negative impact of strong alcohol on Portsmouth –we are not requiring stores to sign up. There will be no penalties for responsible retailers who do not join the scheme.”
Linda Sood at Falcon News is one of a number of Portsmouth retailers who have come under increasing scrutiny from Trading Standards officers after refusing to remove beers and ciders at 6.5% abv.
Sood is standing her ground until there’s a “level playing field” with all local retailers on board with the city’s new Reducing the Strength scheme. But, since making her position clear, she had a letter in January from the council warning her about minor breaches of licensing regulations.
“They are right to point these out, but they’ve never done anything like this in all the years I’ve been here. They’ve suddenly decided to clamp down and I feel intimidated by the closer attention they’re paying. It’s extra undue pressure.
“I’m all in favour of responsible drinking, and as retailers we all have to play our part, but it’s not fair to target independents like this.
“I’m going to hold my stance until everyone has stopped selling these products. Why should I lose the associated sales of cigarettes and newspapers that people buy when they come in for a can of lager?”
Her son Bobby added: “They were trying to get us to sign the form. They said some supermarkets had stopped selling these drinks but none had. They said Tesco had removed it from their stores but they hadn’t at all.
“They kept coming round, quite a few times, they were saying ‘this person has signed up and that person has’.
“I said ‘this is not good for my business’. They just said people will pick up lower strength beers. They said the people that drink these drinks will move out of town. Then it just affects another town.”