Super-strength lager is a beer for sipping, possibly from a wine glass – and other delusions

Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain discusses the very real dangers caused by super-strength drinks

Super-strength lager is a beer for sipping, possibly from a wine glass – and other delusions

Steve was telling me about the delusional behaviour of the drink dependent person – the alcoholic, as he refers to himself. Not, he was quick to point out, a recovered alcoholic. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. In his view, you can’t risk relaxing and then relapsing. You need to be on constant guard.

At various times Steve had convinced himself that he could be a normal drinker. He would venture into his local pub and have a pint, then sit there all night trying not to think about a second pint. Having successfully reached last orders, he’d go home satisfied that his consumption of alcohol was under control.  But on the second night he would be the last to leave the pub having drank steadily all evening. By the end of the week, raging at the bar staff for refusing to serve him, his final ignominious departure was often assisted by the police. By now, out of control, he would buy six-packs of super-strength lager to drink at home. He preferred Tennent’s Super although the taste was irrelevant because he was now only drinking to achieve inebriation as quickly as possible and with an 8% or 9% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) content, cans of super-strength lager represent the most effective short-cut to oblivion.

Around six weeks later Steve would emerge from his bender.  By now the carpet of his living room would be submerged by the contents of overflowing ash-trays, half eaten takeaways, broken crockery and dozens of super-strength lager cans. And from this nadir he would wearily take a shower, trying in vain to soap away the feeling of self-hatred, bracing himself to charge up his phone to see if there were any messages from his family; hoping that they might have noticed his absence yet grateful that they hadn’t found him lying on the floor in his own piss.

Steve hasn’t had a drink for 15 months. He is a volunteer at a project supporting homeless people and keeping furiously busy. This time he thinks he won’t relapse and his clear-eyed self-awareness makes me feel instinctively that he will succeed this time around.

The devastation wreaked by high strength ciders and lagers on the lives of homeless men and women is extraordinary and intolerable – except that we tolerate it. The strength and the cheapness is a fatal combination. A three-litre bottle of high strength (7.5%) white cider can cost as little as £3.50 and contains the same amount of alcohol as 22 shots of vodka. Nationally, these drinks cut swathes through a population of alcohol-dependent, highly vulnerable men and woman, a ghoulish harvest to which we are in danger of becoming desensitised. Statistics from a recent internal report focusing on four Thames Reach hostels for former rough sleepers records that of the 15 hostel residents who died during the year, twelve died from health problems related to alcohol or alcohol combined with drug misuse. The average age of death was 52.

These reports, collated from contemporaneous records written over the year make grim reading: ‘P was a heavy drinker and had severe physical frailty. P was found unresponsive in his room. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was done on him until the paramedics came but nothing could save him’. The dominant, ubiquitous grip of high strength lagers and ciders cannot be understated. In this same report it was noted that for 88% of dependent drinkers in our hostels these were the drinks of choice or, as one of my colleagues sourly put it, the drinks of bondage.

Some months back we received a visit to one of our hostels from a senior executive at Aston Manor, the company which produces Frosty Jack’s, a best-selling high strength white cider. Thames Reach, alongside other charities supporting people with alcohol dependency problems has been campaigning to secure an increase in the price of high strength lagers and ciders. Evidence shows that increasing the price of high strength alcohol influences people to switch to cheaper, lower strength drinks. Our experience is that, when this can be achieved, health improvements follow and the periods of sobriety when we can work effectively with individuals to help them tackle their destructive drinking and address the underlying factors driving it will lengthen. Our visitor wanted to see directly the impact of high strength ciders on a vulnerable group of individuals and discuss our concerns. The residents at our hostel have often slept rough for years. The more seriously dependent will frequently drink ten cans of, for example, K cider in a day. This represents 40 units of alcohol. The Government’s Chief Medical Officer advises that we should not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week.

We had a frank and illuminating conversation with the man from Aston Manor who showed a genuine interest in exploring how the company’s products, notably Frosty Jack’s, could become less harmful to those heavily addicted to high strength alcohol. Then, unexpectedly, we entered into a bizarre exchange concerning what he believed to be the changing profile of Frosty Jack’s consumers and drinking behaviours. He explained that the purchasers of Frosty Jack’s were becoming increasingly diverse with evidence that it was now being taken to dinner parties, no longer encumbered by connotations of ‘park bench’ drinking.  The quick grin that I expected to follow, indicating that I was on the receiving end of some self-deprecating humour didn’t come. This, it seemed, was a seriously held view.

Before our meeting I had entered ‘Frosty Jack’s’ as a Twitter search and was unsurprised to see that the bulk of the comments focused on excessive drinking and regretful inebriation. The butt of the jokes were people on low incomes with perceived poor taste and young people below the age when they can legally purchase alcohol, typically drinking Frosty Jack’s clandestinely in the park. The language used included: ‘low life’, ‘dossers’ and ‘chavs’. The executive from Aston Manor seemed genuinely disappointed to hear this. Privately I reflected that delusional beliefs associated with alcohol are not just the preserve of the addicted.  Similarly, Brookfield Drinks, the producers of Kestrel Super claim on their website with extraordinary, if ludicrous, sang-froid that this super-strength lager is ‘a beer for sipping, possibly from a wine glass – and certainly one for sharing’.

The campaign to reduce the damage caused by super-strength lagers and high strength ciders has had some impact on government which has formally consulted on the levels of duty that should be applied to high strength ciders. Supported by the Alcohol Health Alliance  we have made our submission and await the government’s response, hoping that a rise in duty and subsequent increase in price will result.  We know that if this can be achieved it will create the impetus to move dependent drinkers to lower strength, less damaging brands.

The step of moving from a high strength cider to one with half the ABV may seem inconsequential, but in the frontline battle to help people live long and fulfilling lives instead of short, embittered and painful ones, it is crucial.  Sometimes we get a breakthrough. Last week, my colleague Dave told me with pride about how his team had successfully ‘weaned’ hostel resident Jimmy off of K cider onto a 3% brand.  Jimmy was well known for frequently being so disorientated that he needed to ask staff whether it was morning or evening.  After only two weeks on the lower strength cider he was eating better, keeping himself clean, not wetting his bed and, to Dave’s considerable relief, ‘not kicking off at the drop of a hat’.

There is a more radical solution than trying to increase the price of high strength ciders and lagers and that is to stop producing them altogether. Far from it being a pipedream divorced from financially driven realities, this has happened.  One of the most well-know, indeed notorious white ciders was White Lightning, often referred to by those who had experienced its special hallucinatory qualities as ‘white frightening’. Over a decade ago we hosted a visit to one of hostels for senior executives of Heineken which produced White Lightning. Not long after the visit the company reduced the strength of White Lightning and then a few months later stopped producing it altogether.  It was a brave move, made without fanfare, for which I remain supremely grateful.

There is a precedent, therefore, that other companies can follow and in doing so lives can be saved. How can it possibly be justifiable to continue producing cheap, high strength ciders and lagers for a market dominated almost exclusively by those with the most severe alcohol dependency problems when it is predicted by health experts that almost 63,000 people in England will die over the next five years from liver problems linked to heavy drinking?

Sometimes I find myself fantasising about the moment when the Heineken executives took their unexpected decision to dispense with White Lightning. I imagine a corporate board room and around the table a group of executives poring over financial projections and market share ratios, trying to weight up their options. But the executives who visited our hostel and saw the misery and damage caused by their product find their minds drifting back to this experience and finally one of them says – ‘Fuck it, let’s just stop producing this stuff and tell the Board and shareholders that it’s called our ‘Doing the Right Thing Strategy’.  It wouldn’t have been this way – but I like to think that it was.

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Read about Thames Reach's super-strength drinks campaign