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A half measure of alcohol reforms

07-Jul-2008

Knife crime, obesity and skiffle music. Out of all the evils currently threatening the welfare of Western teenagers, recent US headlines finger the main culprit as the caffeinated alcoholic beverage.

Excessive consumption of alcohol is estimated to kill 200,000 Europeans of all ages every year, according to the EU figures. Clearly, this is not just an adolescent problem. Estimates suggest that one in four men aged between 15 - 29 die of alcohol related problems, while one in ten females belonging to the same age group were also killed due partly to the impact of drink. A raft of proposals and legislation has been put forward in both the US and Europe over the past month concerning reducing alcohol abuse in young people. These have ranged from the Californian Board of Equalization (BOE) raising taxes on malted 'alcopop' beverages, to lifting the buying age of alcohol to 21 at stores in Scotland. Though not seemingly linked, both measures are designed to serve as an attempt to discourage dangerous alcohol consumption in young people. This has become especially true of malt beverage 'alcopops', which have been criticised by some due to their higher alcohol content compared to other ready to drink (RTD) alcohols. But are these solutions a really a shot in the arm for drinking policy or simply media-grabbing half measures serving to distort the industry-wide approach to cutting alcohol abuse? There are of course, genuine problems with alcohol abuse across the EU and most of the western world. But they are problems not just confined to the teenage delinquent alco-pop drinker that appear to dominate the news headlines. However, if it is decided that a tougher stance must be taken on the alcoholic beverage industry, shouldn't all products over a certain level of alcohol content be taxed and not just caffeinated beverages? Similarly, should the Scottish parliament vote in favour of passing reforms on alcohol sales at off-trade retail sites, despite keeping the consumption age at 18 at pubs, bars and other on-site premises, is this not also a half-baked attempt at trying to get tough on alcohol abuse? No one would defend alcohol abuse. But it is should be accepted that teenagers are naturally rebellious, be it through music, wacky trousers or as often is the case, drinking. Surely, there is a principal flaw in both the Scottish executive drink age plans and the BOE approval of the caffeinated beverage tax in that they simply don't go far enough. Drinkers, both underage and legal alike, will simply turn to other more affordable products to get their kicks, even without the caffeine present. By tightening the legal age at which alcohol can be served at retail outlets while bars and pubs will continue to serve to 18 year olds, then on-trade sales of alcohol will surely benefit at their expense. Industry reaction unsurprisingly has been negative to both proposals with many trade associations claiming the Scottish proposals on age limits are poorly thought out. Manufacturer Diageo is also reportedly looking to sue the BOE over the tax on 'alcopops', alleging it has gone beyond its legal remit by redefining the products under the higher taxed spirits and liquor band. The possible risk then of dividing the alcohol industry must also be considered should more governments and regulators follow suit with similar measures to curb drinking. While the success of industry self-regulation policies continues to divide opinion, there must be a consistent policy to engage all drinks groups in any attempt to curb encouraging irresponsible consumption of their products. By punishing a single type of retailer or product, drink makers will become more averse to working with tighter solutions on alcohol sales and promotions. While the industry may object even more, if legislators wish to truly get tough on alcohol abuse, then the solution may be a case of all for one and one for all. Any lesser solution may after all prove much harder to swallow.


Neil Merrett is a staff reporter for BeverageDaily.com and has written on a variety of issues for publications in both the UK and France. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail Neil.Merrett 'at' decisionnews.com

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