Drunken Britain – is the Responsibility Deal the responsible answer to a massive problem?

Alcohol misuse and abuse is a major problem in the UK, and not just among youth but suburban drinkers too.

The Home Office has just finalised a proposal designed to tackle the consequence of the problem – currently estimated to be costing the NHS £21bn a year.

Sin alcohol

It includes a revised ‘Responsibility Deal’, that would see the removal off shelves of carbonated drinks with more than 4 units of alcohol, like Tennents Super (9%). AB InBev has been the first to commit.

Retailers are also being pressurised into taking a more responsible attitude towards promotions and display of alcohol.

The Government wants to put an end to super strength lagers, though this seems a token target when students, for example, tank up on cheap spirits before going clubbing and some suburban drinkers are drinking half a bottle of wine, at 14%, a night.

The alcohol industry, which turns over billions, has committed £250,000 to kick start an alcohol education campaign in schools. With just over 8 million pupils attending around 24,000 schools in England, that’s about £10 a school. That’s not exactly going to make much impact.

Last month the drinks industry was accused of funding 5 alcohol charities to the tune of £1m each, by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, so about £4.75 more than they are putting into schools.

A recent report by Kantar Alocvision shows that there is a drift back to pubs, after a 5 year decline in on-trade sales, the amount we are drinking is falling, though one growth area is in quality bottled ales.

Part of the Responsibility Deal is to remove 100 million units of alcohol from annual sales, in part through moving towards lower alcohol products, wines, cider, beer, etc. However, some have pointed out that it’s easy for retailers to appear to be reducing this on paper, when in fact people are drinking the same.

But alcohol brands have been making some significant changes, Diageo being one with a reduced strength version of their Blossom Hill range, a lower alcohol version of Guinness at 2.8% abv. Carlsberg’s new citrus lager is just 2.8% abv, while Heineken has reduced the strength of Bulmers, John Smith’s and introduced Fosters Radler.

In countries like Spain, low and zero alcohol products (sin alcohol) are popular and easily available. Unlike the British, the Spanish have no issue in pacing their drinks or with the image of sin alcohol beers. So one question that needs to be asked is, why drink brands do little to promote a positive image for low alcohol beers?

End of last year we cold pitched an innovative low alcohol beer campaign to several drink brands, and were told by one that there were “no current plans to support their low alcohol range”. Why not, Theresa May (Home Secretary) should be asking?

As a witness at the Common’s Select Committee, several years ago, on drinking and marketing, I observed one brand getting a real grilling over the fact they spend millions on their main brand but bugger all on the low alcohol one. Their response was, “That’s because there’s no demand.” The committee head pointed out that they spend millions on their main brand to increase demand, so surely they believe advertising works, so therefore if they advertised their low alcohol brand it’d sell more. A good point.

Several years ago I worked with a supermarket on a alcohol awareness campaign but at the 11th hour it was canned, some believe because it would have reduced profit margins.

Although there are a number of alcohol awareness campaigns about, how many actually work?

Having worked on one in colleges with the NUS, on simple factor we discovered was that many students actually didn’t really want to get drunk, they just conformed to a social norm – the belief that everyone else does so they do too. In act in one group of 10 only two wanted to get smashed, the rest didn’t but thought they were the minority. When we revealed that they were in fact the majority the two heavy drinkers looked sheepish. Applying some Behavioural Economics, instead of another ad campaign, could make a bigger difference.

Or apply Parallel Universal Thinking (PUT), that’ll throw up some alternative solutions.

Despite claims that the Responsibility Deal is delivering against targets, there are those that believe we need a more dramatic solution and legislation, not a voluntary scheme, which could include a total ban on alcohol marketing.

Whatever way you look at it, we do have a serious problem in the UK and I don’t really think the Government has found the right solution yet.