Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

As brewers face pressure group wrath for luring tots to alcohol, what are the implications for the rest of the drinking nation?

Mrs Thatcher’s lamentation for the passing of the yuppie was a jarring reminder that, for all its undoubted benefits, laissez-faire economics is not without warts.

The good baroness may yearn for the return of of Porsche, Perrier and puke, but I suspect she is in a minority. Nevertheless, for all Mr Major’s emollience, the legacy of his predecessor lives on.

Sadly, however, the enterprise culture that she extolled as creative, liberating, and exhilarating has emerged from recession cramped, menacing and fearful. Survival is the name of the game and no job is now safe.

Fierce, almost desperate, competition is not merely unattractive, it quickly breeds excess and is ultimately self-defeating. Two examples stand out: the tabloid press, which has developed a deeply repellent aspect; and the drinks trade, which has blindly rushed into a booze-for-toddlers market.

In both instances, cut-throat competition in the short term has produced a reckless disregard for the long-term consequences of oppressive legislation.

It seems to me that a privacy law is inevitable. Self-regulation cannot flourish in the stony battlegrounds of circulation wars, and sooner or later, the press will find its freedoms curtailed with, as always, consequences unforeseen by the legislators.

Similarly, the brewing industry, stupid though it is, knows it is under constant threat from an assortment of busybodies, meddlers, cranks, quacks and wowsers, who hold in common a tireless zealotry, and to whose cries the legislators are ever attentive.

Self-preservation, you might have thought, would have prompted the brewers to tread warily, if tread they must, in a minefield that blurs the distinction between hard and soft drinks. But no, in they blundered – blindfold. In the time it takes to burp an infant, some 20 brands of alcoholic lemonades and colas were rushed into production.

Predictably enough, in less time than it takes for a teenager to evacuate his stomach, the wowsers were squealing, the politicians were responding, and the drinks trade was hastily drawing up a code of conduct on the back of an envelope.

No-one should have been surprised. When Heineken complained about the number of black people appearing in a youth TV show it sponsors, it was obvious that for the past ten years at least, the brewers have been living on a different planet from the rest of us, where the spores of political correctness have yet to land. While envying them their sojourn, one has to concede that it is no preparation for safe existence in a planet populated by pressure groups whose tonsils are forever rattling.

Dr John Rae, director of the Portman Group, a body established by the drinks companies with the aim, among other things, of promoting sensible drinking, says the craze for spiked fizzy beverages took everyone by surprise. “The industry plunged into a new market without thinking about the consequences.”

While post-Thatcherite terror at missing out on a lucrative new source of income might be accepted as a mitigating plea, the brewers’ insistence, hand on heart and honest guv’, that the new brands are not aimed at young drinkers is disingenuous to say the least.

Hooch alcoholic lemonade has as its symbol a snarling lemon; Two Dogs features a pair of bulldogs standing menacingly side by side; Sainsbury’s own brand, Piranha, depicts on the can a huge open jaw ringed with spiked teeth. In each case the image is one of aggression and strength, precisely the qualities associated with drink in the juvenile mind.

The brewers, moreover, have known for years that young drinkers like their booze sweet rather than dry.

Sir Charles Tidbury, when he was chairman of Whitbread, once gave me the scientific explanation. The front part of the tongue, he said, responds to sweet tastes, but, as we get older, it becomes less sensitive and the palate develops a preference for more savoury flavours. That is why lager is favoured by the callow, and bitter by the mature. That, at any rate, was his theory.

Dr Rae, who was head of Westminster School, supports the notion. “Having been closely involved with 13 and 14-year-olds, I know that they usually start on beer. It can be a slow process because of the taste.

“These new drinks, which taste like soft drinks, may quite easily accelerate that process and that is not something I would welcome.”

The brewers have a long history of greed and vandalism. Their past is strewn with theme pubs, plastic bars, musak, karaoke, topless-a-go-go fun palaces, keg bitter, pub fayre, designer lager – and astronomic pricing.

If ever an industry deserved a black eye, brewing is it. Which is why it is so very difficult to feel sympathy with a business that, while operating in an area of acute sensitivity and ever-circling enemies, produces sweet fizzy drinks in jazzy packaging and with an alcoholic content of almost five per cent.

The snag is that when the brewers put their head in the noose, those of us who like nothing more than a quiet drink (except for another one) are also threatened.

Can it be long before pale ale bottles start coming with a government health warning? Must we form another FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Swallowing Tinctures)? If it comes to that, you’ll know who is to blame.

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