People

Are they coming to get us?

Smokers are facing ever increasing restrictions.Will the alcoholic drink sector be next?
By Dominic Roskrow
The Panel
James Leavey (JL) - Editor The FOREST Guides to Smoking in. London and Scotland.
Dominic Roskrow (DR) - Editor Whisky Magazineand Cigar Buyer.
David Williamson (DW) - Scotch Whisky Association.Q.Fears are growing that spirits and alcohol will follow tobacco and face first the threat of restrictions and then an ever-escalating campaign for bans.Firstly,do you accept the premise outlined above? Why?DW: Globally, alcoholic drinks already face a variety of restrictions, either barriers to market access, such as discriminatory tariffs, but, increasingly, also limiting the freedom to market products. These are closely linked to the alcohol and health debate.However, it doesn’t follow that spirits will face tobacco-style restrictions. While alcohol misuse through excessive consumption can do harm, it is widely recognised that responsible consumption may confer health benefits and that most people who drink do so as part of a healthy lifestyle. Officials and politicians in several countries are on record that alcohol and tobacco are not the same.It is also important that distillers have taken a lead in promoting responsible consumption, using unit labelling and responsibility messages, and adopting a far reaching SWACode of Practice on responsible marketing and promotion. Selfregulation, with industry and government working together, is the best solution and legislative restrictions are not necessary.JL: It’s possible but it doesn’t make sense, from an economic or social point of view.There are moves to extend the hours supermarkets can legally sell alcohol which means booze will be readily available to those who want it. I can’t see the point of any government trying to restrict the consumption of alcohol in licensed premises for surely it’s better for people to drink in a pub than on the street. Not only would that government lose enormous tax revenue, it would also risk upsetting all the non-smokers in the UK who thought they were exempt from draconian laws drafted by politically correct, humourless, born-again puritans. Ten years ago, Jeffrey Bernard, the columnist who was notorious for his smoking and drinking, said in his ‘Last Word’ for my first book, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London: “The next thing is these anti-smoking people will move on, inevitably, to drinking and people will start talking absolute crap about passive drunks. I know drunks are a bore but at least smokers aren’t.” I share his sentiments.Q.The drinks industry seems to be trying to preempt action by taking steps itself.In your experience,can this work?DW: Everyone has a role to play in promoting responsible drinking choices including individuals, government, retailers and producers. The United Kingdom is a good example of this partnership approach – government has recognised the industry as a legitimate stakeholder in tackling alcohol misuse and believes the industry is best placed to regulate itself rather than imposing legislation.By playing their part to the full, distillers are better able to work with others to change harmful attitudes to alcohol. It may take time but that should be our goal. Government, through campaigns such as the UK Sensible Drinking Message, has a major role too. It is essential government puts sufficient resources behind such messages.DR: But isn’t there a degree of hypocrisy here? We all know the tax benefits to governments from the alcohol trade. But it’s a very American concept to make companies responsible for the behaviour of individuals.Only in America could a rock drummer blame his band management for his heroin habit.If you really want to make a difference to drinking habits ban High Street happy hours, or jugs of red bull and vodka, or stupid speed drinking games.Q.Are compromises possible and in your view,is that what all sides in the debate really want?DW: Promoting responsible attitudes to alcohol is about partnership not compromise.What we all want to see is progress towards a culture which recognises responsible consumption is part of a modern society but in which inappropriate drinking has no place.DR: I agree with you in theory, David. But the problem comes when we introduce subjective terms such as ‘inappropriate.’ Is drinking small volumes in the street more inappropriate than being inebriated in a bar for over 21s? Is it acceptable to drink on the street if you’re sat by a table but not when you’re standing up? How many units constitute ‘inappropriate’?Q.In your view on what level do these debates occur? Is it the case that the argument becomes one of absolutes (smoking/spirits are bad,therefore they should be completely banned) or can degrees play a part (cigars/premium spirits different to cigarettes/alcopops)?DW: The industry is right to assume a leadership role in taking steps to promote responsible attitudes to alcohol. That way we can work with government and others to shape solutions. Failure to achieve this gives rise to the danger that decisions are made on the basis of emotion not evidence. The natural reaction of legislators is to deal in absolutes.DR:Again I agree. But I think we have to do much more to take the fight to those who would restrict drinking opportunities and to stress the positives. The people who come to Whisky Live are on the whole discerning whisky enthusiasts. The people staggering down the High Street at 3am have consumed a crateful of alcopops and they don’t tend to be clutching a premium bottle of malt. I’m not sure I even want to get in to a debate about the healthy effects of moderate drinking. When you’ve banned cars from my street with their carbon monoxide omissions, banned deep fried food and made five units of fruit compulsory each day then let’s sit down over a large whisky and talk about m y personal health.Q.Is the potential battle over alcoholic drinks the same as that over smoking? Is there a comparison for instance,between passive smoking and alcohol-related road accidents etc?DW: No, The Scotch Whisky Association don’t see the link. The fundamental difference is of course that scientific research has demonstrated that moderate alcohol consumption – whether Scotch, beer or wine – may confer health benefits. The same simply cannot be said of tobacco.JL: Of course there’s a link between drunken drivers and alcohol-related road deaths; it’s usually the criminally negligent driver who’s drunk, not the pedestrian or the other driver. Maybe it’s time for pubs to organise mini-coaches or taxis to take their customers home, for a little extra on the cost of the drinks..DR: That’s an interesting point James. I know a bloke who works with the police in Norwich to help stop teenagers leaving pubs and drowning in the river. It happens a lot.His view is the safest place to be on a Saturday night is in a pub. The most dangerous is 10 yards outside its door.Much more needs to be done to make the suppliers of large volumes of alcoholic drinks to vulnerable youngsters more responsible, while leaving us alone.Q.What can the drinks trade learn from the tobacco trade in this regard?DW:Alcohol is not tobacco. The whisky industry has a well-established reputation for responsible practices but must continue to play its part to the full. Too often legislation is made in a vacuum – our challenge must therefore continue to be educating people on the facts of moderate alcohol consumption and tackling alcohol misuse.JL: For various reasons, Britain’s tobacco trade has done very little to fight the forthcoming national ban on smoking in public, in fact they seem to have almost given up the fight before it began. If Britain’s drinks industry is now concerned with an extension of the smoking ban being applied to booze, then they’d better get moving. It’s either that or roll over and cry ‘Uncle’ and cry while their profits drain away.DR:Absolutely. Let’s get on the front foot more. We should distance ourselves from the mass consumption market and celebrate all that’s good about premium whisky.