Reducing the Strength: United to Protect Choice

07 March, 2014

Off Licence News is campaigning for legal clarity over the Reducing the Strength initiative after an alarming rise in the number of councils banning retailers from selling various drinks.

More than 90 councils have adopted the scheme pioneered in Ipswich, amid growing concerns that retailers are being forced to comply with restrictions – despite clear warnings from the Office of Fair Trading such schemes could be breaking competition law.

OLN’s United to Protect Choice campaign has been backed by leading trade associations – the National Association of Cider Makers, Wine & Spirit Trade Association, the British Beer & Pub Association, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Society of Independent Brewers.

Various schemes have urged retailers to strip shelves of beers and cider above 6% abv in some cases. This means 23% of the 398 craft products that won awards at OLN’s International Beer Challenge and International Cider Challenge would be banned, severely impacting consumer choice.

There are also growing fears that the policy could spread across the trade to include wines and spirits, and to the pub trade.

Confusion reigns as each council comes up with its own interpretation of the Ipswich scheme, and Portsmouth City Council, which embarked on a ban of certain products this week, accused other authorities of being heavy-handed in their approach and introducing schemes where they are not needed.

Rob Anderson-Weaver, from its community safety team, told OLN: “What’s damaging our campaign is other campaigns.

“There’s no need for this initiative in some areas and they’re going in heavy-handed.”

OLN has asked all the local authorities operating a Reducing the Strength scheme for information about the restrictions in place, the evidence that led them to support a ban, and details of how alcohol policy is developed.

OLN is also seeking:

■ Greater clarification from the OFT, which has said there is a “high risk” that councils are infringing the Competition Act 1998. We want the legal position clarified and assurances on how the OFT is communicating its concerns to councils.

■ More enforcement of current laws to control public disorder, such as penalties for serving drunks – under which only 12 prosecutions were made in 2011 – and increased powers to confiscate alcohol in the 852 Alcohol Control Zones in place.

■ Greater emphasis by local authorities on working in partnership with retailers and the wider industry to tackle perceived social issues.

Independent retailers and larger operators have also hit out at the schemes. Backing OLN’s campaign, Oddbins’ managing director Ayo Akintola said: “This development is the thin end of a dubious wedge.

In the guise of addressing alcohol-related problems, is what actually looks and feels like the beginning of Prohibition. This was the same method deployed by the prohibitionists of yesteryear and, as history tells us, the result was bootleg booze, corruption, crowded jails and a diminished business sector.

“The criminalisation of that which is not criminal, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, mustn’t be allowed to creep in through the back door.”

Sainsbury’s declined to take part in a Reducing the Strength scheme in Camden, north London, this week and a spokesperson told OLN: “All our stores play a part in the local community and we recognise our responsibilities as a licensed retailer.”

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





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