Staring into the abyss

31 October, 2008

How proposed alcohol regulation could affect the off-trade

As I sit typing this, the news on the radio is telling me that although the UK economy is not yet in recession, there are indicators that this is very likely to happen. These are worrying times, aren't they? As if the global financial meltdown (I think this is how we're supposed to refer to it) wasn't bad enough, things are likely to go a bit pear-shaped here for a while. Analysts think that this is likely to be a fairly short, shallow recession, but there's no doubt that there is some rough ground to cover over the next year or so.

Added to this, I'm sure that everyone in the UK drinks industry must

be feeling a bit twitchy about how the government's plans for alcohol regulation are going to develop. The current plan for alcohol-only checkouts in supermarkets is clearly misguided. Data from Morrisons demonstrates that this sort of arrangement does little to reduce sales of alcohol and, more pertinently, there is nothing to suggest how this approach impacts on how and where the alcohol is consumed.

However, the industry as a whole should be grateful that the government is at least looking in the right direction in its search for appropriate targets of regulation.

In idle moments (not that there are many, but I try to seek them out), I do wonder about how the landscape of alcohol retailing might change. As a specialist, a huge amount of shelf and fridge space is given

to beers, wines and spirits. So much so, in fact, that quite often people come in, quickly scan the fridges and ask: "Do you not sell soft drinks?". Yes we do, look; right there at the bottom of the fridges. Never mind alcohol-only checkouts; that's pretty much a description of how we do business. On one hand, if you were something of a puritan, you might be horrified to learn that a tiny shop in a nice suburb of Leeds was doing a roaring trade in controlled substances. A shop stuffed full of alcohol

and a little tobacco on the side. But on the other hand, isn't this really how it should be?

We're experts in what we sell

and good at how we sell it.

I find it hard to believe that the UK will follow , for example , Sweden

and introduce a national alcohol retail monopoly (the Systembolaget), but I suppose there is an outside chance that it may happen at some point in the future. Currently, it's not politically expedient to do so, just as the country teeters on the brink of recession, but perhaps at some point in the future, the balance will tip and the move will be made.

To maintain a steady revenue from the reduced amount of alcohol sold, taxation (in the form of duty or minimum pricing) will have to increase. Over time, as the amount of alcohol consumed decreases, so too will the amount of money required to treat the effects of alcohol-related problems. Of course, reducing these new controls would be seen as a backward step, given the positive influence they have been seen to have on the country's physical, mental, social and financial health.

It sounds unlikely, doesn't it? I don't mean the state-controlled monopoly

- that's all too likely . I mean the happier, healthier, more sober country. That's why someone, somewhere, has to think the unthinkable.




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