Treat us with respect

How should the industry react over the issue of responsible drinking?
By Dominic Roskrow
The Panel
Abigail Bosanko, author and whisky enthusiast (AB)
Chuck Cowdrey, American whiskey writer (CKC)
Keir Sword, proprietor, Royal Mile Whiskies (KS)Q. There is a growing view that society is becoming more litigious and governments are increasingly taking responsibility for society’s well being, perhaps at the expense of individualism. Is this a threat to whisky?CKC: First, I think it is great that you are asking these questions. The industry, including the enthusiast community, should talk about these issues. Obviously, it isn’t about whisky per se, but whisky can easily be swept up in new regulations aimed at all spirits products or at beverage alcohol in general.AB: Yes, but whisky is an independent spirit and has thrived despite government attempts to suppress or depress the market – whether through means of taxation, prohibition or general sanctimony.Q. Are moves to put warnings and guides to sensible drinking on bottles of alcohol a good thing, or are they likely to further ‘ghetto-ise’ spirits drinkers?AB: They’re patronising. Such warnings carry the tone of a tee-total maiden aunt who assumes that alcohol is the road to ruin and those who take a drink are probably reckless, silly people who need to be told to behave themselves.CKC: I think warnings are wrong in principle because they suggest that any product with a warning label on it is uniquely dangerous and products without such warnings are perfectly safe, both of which assumptions could be false.They also suggest that the public is ignorant about alcohol and its effects and will benefit by receiving this information, a dubious proposition. However, if warnings and guides are likely to be imposed, the industry needs to make sure it has a seat at the table, to fight for a truthful and balanced presentation.KS: To buy a bottle of whisky you have to be at least 18 years of age. To buy a bottle of good malt whisky you need to be at least 18 years of age and have a reasonable level of disposable income.My understanding (as with tobacco) is that the purpose of warnings is to protect the vulnerable, and the young. The vulnerable generally drink whatever is cheap and strong (not usually single malt whisky – or hand-made Havana cigars) and the young tend to drink alcopops. I am very much in favour of protecting those who are vulnerable and young from the dangers of alcohol, but would hope that more common sense be used than with tobacco, where a £35 Montecristo A is treated the same as a pack of Lambert & Butler.Q. Can we learn anything from the experience of the tobacco industry, and is there a danger we could go the same way?KS: I suspect that those responsible for implementing the restrictions and warnings on tobacco consider that they have done a good job. To an extent they have, and I am very concerned that shall result in nonchalance spilling over into how they handle the malt whisky industry.AB: If we follow this argument to its logical conclusion it could mean ‘pocket prohibition’ – within certain areas of cities, for example – similar to the smoking bans coming in to force. Dry pubs? Blimey. I think that’s called Starbucks, isn’t it?CKC: We absolutely must learn from the tobacco industry and the history of what happened there.The danger for alcohol is in not resisting the forces who really do want to legislate alcohol consumption and all other ‘bad’ personal habits into oblivion. They have just about done all they can to tobacco, alcohol is next, and then it will be foods high in saturated fat. After that, who knows? Those forces paint with a very broad brush. One mistake beverage alcohol has made in the past has been to segment itself, making a case for leaving, say, whisky alone by tacitly saying “pick on vodka, they’re the bad guys.”Such appeasement won’t work. Neoprohibitionists are moralists first and they are opposed to alcohol use on moral grounds, period, no matter how they dress it up. We should keep in mind the American writer H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”Q. A recent report in The Lancet concluded that alcohol caused more health problems than high blood pressure or tobacco. Immediately there were calls for a large hike in tax on strong spirits. How should we react to that?KS: Tax levels are already comparatively very high in this country. Further increases would in theory have the desired effect of increasing the price of entry-level spirits.However in practice it would increase the amount of spirits brought in from other European countries where the tax is already significantly lower. I assume that this would then increase the tax revenue of other countries whilst reducing our own. It would also drive people to drink wine rather than spirits as the taxes are not equitable across both of these sectors. Wine is mostly made abroad, whereas we are the world leaders at producing premium spirits – a proud industry surely deserving of government support rather than its opposition.CKC: I think our industry trade groups should spend the necessary funds to look hard at the science behind that report and respond to it in scientific terms. There is a lot of research that shows persons who consume alcohol regularly and moderately are healthier than people who consume no alcohol at all.Ultimately, everyone has had to accept the fact that there is no safe way to smoke cigarettes. Even very moderate smoking has negative health consequences. That is a fundamental difference between cigarettes and alcohol. Regular moderate alcohol consumption is a safe, healthy and pleasurable adult activity. Moderate drinkers can consume alcohol for a lifetime and suffer no negative health consequences. They may even experience health benefits. This is why we should not be shy about discussing alcohol and health.AB: There has been a huge rise in hospital infection rates which cost the NHS millions of pounds a year. If one has to go into hospital it might be a good idea to take a bottle of whisky as protection againstMRSA. It kills all bacteria and will win you friends on the ward. Your doctor will be delighted to share a dram.Q. Should we be doing more, and if so what? Which is the more acceptable direction: to introduce more campaigns to reinforce a message of sensible drinking, or to campaign harder for freedom of choice and for individual responsibility?AB: Stop worrying. It’s the worst thing you can do for your health. Just pour a nice dram and chill out.KS: Neither is right and neither is wrong – it’s a matter of getting the balance right.Q. Is whisky – and specifically premium whisky – able to successfully distance itself from alcohol abuse particularly among the young and on the High Street?AB: Oh yes. So long as we maintain a cool, calm, confidently relaxed approach.CKC: Premium whisky is automatically well-positioned in that regard, as a product to be consumed thoughtfully and in moderation, but for whisky to try to ‘distance itself from alcohol abuse’ would be a losing strategy.For one thing, even if the beverages being abused by the young and on the High Street usually aren’t premium whisky products, the beverages they are abusing are owned and marketed by the same companies, so a ‘distancing’ strategy will be easily exposed for the hypocrisy it is.