Reducing the Strength: Chaos Reigns

07 March, 2014

Representatives from more than 40 councils attended a conference hosted by Suffolk Police this week with a view to implementing a ban on “super-strength” products in their areas.

At least 90 local authorities have already rolled out, or are considering, a Reducing the Strength campaign, despite warnings from the Office of Fair Trading that some could be illegal under competition law.

Despite this, some authorities are intent on developing schemes that require retailers to strip shelves of specific products and brands – or those over a given alcoholic strength – which the authority considers cause social problems.

The team behind the Ipswich scheme hosted the conference, presenting its approach to the idea it pioneered in 2012. Police there defined “super-strength” as beers and ciders of 6.5% abv and above. But because no national guidelines exist for councils looking to adopt copy- cat initiatives, other authorities are taking matters into their own hands and making arbitrary decisions about what they perceive as “problem drinks”.

For example, a letter seen by OLN from Portsmouth City Council to retailers lists 20 brands banned under its scheme. This includes a range of ciders, from White Lightning to Frosty Jack’s, and singles out five Polish brands.

One authority even wrote to retailers emphasising that Lambrini does not breach its restrictions, despite an abv of 7%.

Such examples highlight the scattergun approach councils are taking.

Speaking at the Suffolk Police conference, Shane Brennan, public affairs director at the Association of Convenience Stores, said that, although retailers were aware of the problems created by street drinkers and wanted to understand more about how to deal with them, the proliferation of schemes was creating confusion.

He said: “It’s all happening at breakneck speed and the trade is struggling to get a handle on what’s happening where [different abvs, approaches, where and why they’re being targeted]. That caused confusion and it’s been hard for us to give advice. If we knew what constitutes a good scheme we could have a conversation about it.”

He also emphasised that legal clarity was paramount, adding: “There is significant confusion around the law in this area, and that’s a pre-eminent concern for us. There are real-life prospects of fines for retailers, and singling out certain products is problematic.

“The OFT has a role to provide clarity and reassurance urgently. Retailers have the right intentions and they want fair solutions. But proliferation [of schemes] is the biggest problem. We want to work together, but with the right framework.”

Chief inspector Andrew Mason, who spearheaded the Ipswich scheme, emphasised that Reducing the Strength formed only one part of the initiative he developed and urged other councils to take a similar wider view of the problem and possible solutions.

He said: “Some are implementing the scheme but not knowing the full project we’ve got underway. They are implementing Reducing the Strength as a single solution.”

He added that Reducing the Strength was one point of a 36-point plan. “It’s important you do it the right way. You’ve got to have the other actions that can develop routes out [of street drinking for people].

“This is a voluntary thing. No pressure has been exerted on retailers. We’re not bashing the industry. Some really want to do this.”

Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, said local innovations needed to take place within a national framework, so “we can all align behind the same agenda”. He suggested councils make better use of the measures already in place to counter problems.

He told the conference: “If we do nothing to tackle problem drinkers other categories will grow to fill the space [left by the banned drinks]. We must ensure we cover both sides of this equation – supply and demand.

“The key challenge is how to make high-strength products less appealing to problematic drinkers? There are three ways we might do that: reduction in abv, addressing how product is packaged and price – but I can’t do anything about that. It would be illegal.”

David Paterson, head of public affairs at Heineken UK, which pulled out of the white cider market, also favours a partnership approach between the trade and retailers.

“It was a problem we didn’t want to be part of,” he said. “But addiction means they’ll still get their supply – other products take their place. So removing products isn’t enough. Addressing problems of street drinkers is absolutely essential to success.”

Read Rosie Davenport's column on Reducing the Strength here.

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