The following paper summarises a campaign launched by Thames Reach, a leading UK homelessness charity, highlighting the serious damage to health, premature deaths and social devastation caused by super strength lagers and ciders.
The campaign focuses on the fact that a single 500ml can of 9% super strength lager contains four and a half units of alcohol, which exceeds the Government's daily recommended safe alcohol limit of between two to three units for women and three to four units for men.
It calls on the breweries and Government to tackle this discrepancy and recommends three options to lessen the impact of these products which are widely and cheaply available:
An increase in tax to make it economically unviable to produce them for mass consumption.
The introduction of hard-hitting health warnings similar to those seen on cigarette packets, starkly indicating that the consumption of a single can will lead to the drinker exceeding the Government's daily recommended safe alcohol limit and risking damaging their health.
A new 6% strength ceiling on the alcohol content for canned and bottled super strength lagers and ciders.
Super strength market
The current figure for super strength lager sales is £150 million per annum. There are four main popular super strength lagers at 9%, all brewed by major drinks companies including Tennent's Super brewed by Inbev, the world's largest brewing group, Carlsberg Special Brew (the only super strength on the market prior to the 1980s), Skol Super and Kestrel Super.
Tennent's Super is the super strength lager most commonly associated with street drinking. It is colloquially referred to as 'tramp juice' (you may wish to 'google 'Tennent's Super' to confirm this) and there is a general acceptance amongst off-licences and small retailers selling alcohol that the main consumers are people with alcohol problems. The Portman Group which represents the responsible brewers described this popularity in terms of the market being 'hijacked' by people with an alcohol dependency. In 2001 off licence sales across the UK of Tennent's Super reached £44 million.
Super strength ciders vary in strength but are predominantly around the 7.5% mark. Super strength ciders are amongst the cheapest drinks on the market with one product, White Ace, retailing at a price of only 59 pence for a 500 ml can. The purchasing behaviour of consumers with alcohol addiction problems is extremely 'price sensitive' and so it is no surprise to organisations working with street drinkers to see that at under eight pence per unit of alcohol, White Ace is fast becoming one of the most popular drinks amongst the homeless street drinking population.
Super strength lagers and taxation – an international precedent
The Government's 2004 Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England emphasises the need for the promotion of good practice in product development, branding, advertising, and packaging. It states the importance of avoiding encouraging drinkers to drink well over recommended limits and requests sensible drinking messages on bottles alongside information about unit content.
The government's Strategy concentrates on the need to work with the drinks industry to promote self-regulation and the provision of better education about safe drinking. The medical profession and concerned charities such as Thames Reach believe that the government must give greater attention to the issue of availability of alcohol and that, through constructive use of the tax system to affect pricing of alcohol according to strength, the dangerously strong super strength lagers and ciders can be priced off the market leading to an improvement in the health and well-being of the population.
It is possible that there may be an opportunity through the debate leading up to the forthcoming budget to explore options for changing the tax arrangements relating to alcohol in the UK - measures which could impact on the health of thousands of marginalised homeless people.
In Australia and Ireland, super strength lagers and ciders are not on sale. In Australia there are lower taxes on low alcohol beers. Beers under 3.8% in strength now account for 40 per cent of overall beer consumption. Between 1980 and 2000, alcohol consumption in Australia fell by 24% whilst over the same period consumption of alcohol increased by 31% in the UK. Interestingly, during this period Australia liberalised trading hours, as we have done recently in the UK.
Alcohol and health
According to data from the Office of National Statistics, the number of alcohol related deaths increased by nearly a fifth between 1999 and 2004. Deaths in England and Wales rose from 5,525 in 2000 to 6,544 in 2004. Alcohol Concern believes that these figures are an underestimate of the true figure. They argue that other research and statistics covering illnesses and health problems related to excessive alcohol consumption including some types of cancers, strokes, heart disease and dementia as well as accidents, suicides and assaults, provides a more accurate figure of over 30,000 deaths a year.
The Government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy states that there are up to 22,000 premature deaths per annum and over 30,000 hospital admissions linked to alcohol dependence. It is estimated that 70% of admissions to Accident and Emergency departments at the weekend are linked to alcohol-related incidents.
Alcohol and homelessness
A variety of reports have indicated a connection between rough sleeping and alcohol problems. According to a Government report (Rough Sleepers Unit 1999), 50 per cent of people sleeping rough have an alcohol problem.
Thames Reach own figures for the 4,000 individuals it worked with in 2005, including rough sleepers, people in hostels, people in supported housing projects, and former rough sleepers now living in their own flat in the community indicate that 47% have alcohol misuse problems and show that around 800 different individuals have an addiction to super strength lagers and ciders. Thames Reach's frontline services have plenty of evidence of both the rapid deterioration in health caused by super strength alcohol and the extreme behavioural problems it creates. There is a strong view from frontline staff that if super strength lagers and ciders were not as available as they are currently, it would put them in the position of being able to more effectively encourage and assist homeless service users to move onto weaker alcohol, so reducing their alcohol intake. They conclude that eventually a proportion would, through this staged approach, be able to achieve total abstinence.
The physical problems exhibited amongst our service users include organic brain damage (Korsakoff's syndrome), often illustrated by the familiar shuffling of feet among street drinkers, and liver damage. Evidence from the charity's front line workers show people as young as 35 dying from problems related to drinking super strength lagers. These individuals as a group are commonly referred to as 'the young olds', that is, men and women who, though in their thirties and forties, have the physical health of someone over retirement age.
The charity's campaign 'One can is all it takes', featured on a BBC 1 programme in October 2005 entitled 'Super Strength Hell', attracting over one million viewers. It subsequently featured in a number of national newspapers including the Daily Mirror, Sun, Times, Independent and Financial Times, and in a range of local and regional newspapers and magazines including The Big Issue. The campaign was supported by other charities including Alcohol Concern and the Salvation Army and particularly vocally by the Big Issue founder John Bird.
All 646 MPs received the poster as part of a wider mail-shot organised by the charity and the same image has appeared in a magazine advertising campaign in publications such as The House magazine.
Thames Reach approached Inbev, the makers of Tennent's Super, and the Portman Group. Inbev has announced in the media recently that it will consider producing Tennent's Super in a smaller 440ml can, but only if other drinks companies follow suit. A recent exchange of correspondence with the Portman Group on this and related matters was helpful, but it is clear that a shared agreement to reduce the size of the cans will not be forthcoming until more pressure is exerted on the producers. The Portman Group has advised us that we are entitled to make a complaint about the marketing of super strength lagers and ciders to the independent panel that considers complaints on behalf of the Portman Group.
Reflecting on the best approach to take at this stage of the campaign, it appears that the most achievable outcome is a rise in the price of super strength lagers and ciders through increased taxation, especially as we can cite examples of how this approach has been successful in other countries. We have therefore dropped the call for a 6% alcohol ceiling in favour of this approach, but continue to also want stronger health messages on cans.
From December 2007 our key campaigning approaches are —
Lobby the government to increase the tax on the stronger lagers and ciders (and to possibly reduce the tax on weaker drinks to make it cost neutral) and, in so doing, to accept that there should be a further element to its strategy on tackling alcohol misuse additional to education on health issues associated with alcohol and the need to encourage self-regulation by the drinks industry. It may be possible to make an impact on the Chancellor in advance of the budget at a time when the government is eager to show that it is taking the issue of alcohol misuse very seriously.
We will now work with mps to table an Early Day Motion to raise awareness of the issue at parliament and more widely.
Applying pressure on the drinks industry
Following our unsuccessful attempts to encourage the companies producing the strong lagers who are members of the Portman Group to address the anomaly of one can of super strength lager containing more units of alcohol than the Government's recommended daily alcohol limit, we will be making a complaint to the Portman Group's independent panel on this matter as we believe it infringes their Code of Conduct.