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Super-strength drinks

Thames Reach is fighting for heavier tax on strong lagers and ciders, which are a leading cause of death among homeless people.

High-strength ciders and super-strength beers have emerged as one of the biggest killers of homeless people in the UK, responsible for a higher death toll than either heroin or crack cocaine.

In our hostels for former rough sleepers, at our day centres, on the streets, and across many of our services, we witness daily many people battling with an alcohol addiction. In virtually all cases – in our hostels our figures indicate a 98% total – high-strength ciders and super-strength beers are to blame.

These excessively strong mass-produced brands are between 7.5% ABV and 9% ABV, far stronger than regular and premium strength beers and cider.

Their impact on people’s health has been alarming. A recent survey of deaths among hostel residents showed that 10 out of 16 deaths were directly attributable to high-strength ciders and super-strength beers over the past year. This is not a one-off figure. The year before 11 out of 14 deaths were caused by these drinks.

We have also witnessed the emergence of the ‘young olds’, people in their 30s, 40s, or 50s with the physical and mental health problems more traditionally associated with people past retirement age who need nursing care – typically liver failure, organic brain damage, dementia, mobility issues, head injuries from falling over, and double incontinence.

To reduce this shocking damage to the health of our service users, we have been campaigning for over a decade to raise taxation on these dangerous drinks. All the major studies on alcohol indicate that price is one of the key factors in influencing what people drink. We have also called on the drinks industry to behave more responsibly.

We have had some significant successes, including the consumption of 9% ABV super-strength beer falling by a quarter in the UK, after we successfully lobbied the Government to create a higher band of duty in Autumn 2011, while the drinks manufacturer Heineken removed the last of its high-strength cider from sale in the UK after visiting one of our hostels.

We think a much more targeted response is now needed to tackle high-strength ciders, a relatively new phenomenon which emerged in the 1990s, the dangers of which have now become very apparent.

Popular brands include the 7.5% White Ace cider, which comes in three-litre bottles, contains 24 units of alcohol, but retails at only £3.99. Producing white cider in single bottles of this size sits uneasily with the UK Chief Medical Officers’ guideline that you are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level.

We are now working in partnership with the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), a group of more than 50 non-governmental organisations, which work together to promote evidence-based policies to reduce the damage caused by alcohol misuse.