Never mind alcopops, it’s time to ban underage drinking row

The debates over alcopops rumble on, but George Pitcher says that talk of bans, and other hysterical reactions, should be brought to an end right now. George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon

I have been giving some consideration to why the man in the mask drinks Metz. Could it be that he has a dire case of psoriasis or acne, triggered by an eccentric diet that has, as a staple ingredient, a proprietary drink based on schnapps? It’s a tragic story if that’s the case – not only for the sad adult who cannot reveal his identity to the playmate of his youth, but also for the advertising executives who considered a disfigured teuton with an insecurity complex a fitting role model for their target market.

I didn’t know Martini’s Metz was an alcopop until last week. But, admittedly, its advertising is puerile and presumably deliberately so. It follows that Metz must be aiming at the more juvenile end of the adult market for drinkers, so this could be an important test case in the alcopops debate. Metz is clearly not encouraging underage drinkers (at least not deliberately), but would appear to be appealing to the more youthful instincts of the adult.

I find it astonishing that major drinks companies such as Bass and Whitbread should be accused of encouraging underage drinking. When I was underage, we didn’t need encouraging. If anything, the greater challenge for brewers in those days was to discourage under-age drinking. But times change, and I suppose there are legions of adolescents out there saying: “I wanted to do my physics homework and then take my little sister to the Natural History Museum, but the drinks companies have made an irresistible case for my squandering my future by getting off my face on alcoholic lemonade instead.”

I should check my natural instinct for sarcasm. I accept that there are serious issues here concerning the influence of impressionable teenagers. But I also think that the Metz principle is worth examining – if a company sets out to market to those consumers who haven’t fully matured (as many motor manufacturers do with their more sporty models), is it also cynically exploiting those who haven’t yet grown up in a literal sense?

The answer from some retailers, such as the Co-op and Iceland, is a resounding “yes” and they are banning the likes of Bass’s Hooper’s Hooch and Merrydown’s Two Dogs from their shelves. It will always be difficult to ascertain how much these sorts of actions are driven by laudable retail responsibility and how much by political correctness – by which I mean, in this context, the desire to grease up to the Government (something the Co-op, in particular, may have current cause to do).

Health Secretary Frank Dobson was pretty unequivocal last week when he said that “concerted and horrendous” action was needed against alcopops. Dear old Dobbo. When I used to interview him as shadow energy spokesman in the Eighties, there was often very little left to quote after all the expletives had been deleted. These days, as a minister, he has to delete his own expletives and is often left struggling to find appropriate words. The result is that his doubtless well-meaning attack on alcopops comes out couched in something like the language of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.

The rest of us should be less hysterical. OK, so a judge condemned alcopops makers as “grossly irresponsible” after a 14-year-old boy got drunk on alcoholic lemonade and burned down a school. But when have judges had more than a tenuous grasp of how society and its markets work?

The fact is that it is illegal for alcohol to be bought by or sold to customers under 18 years of age, at which stage British society has deemed that people are old enough to drink it. It’s my view that, if you’re old enough to vote, you should be old enough to drink.

Oddly enough, tobacco manufacturers can sell to 16-year-olds. I don’t think anyone suggests that moderate consumption of cigarettes is harmless and in some cases can be beneficial, as is the case with alcohol – but there you have it. The laws on purchase and consumption of alcohol are clear and it seems to me that, if it can be demonstrated that companies are deliberately marketing alcohol to the under-18s, they are in breach of those laws.

But the burden of proof, rightly, is on those who would have alcopops banned, not on the drinks companies. The logic must be that, if we believe that the marketing of alcopops to under-25s – many of whom, in my experience, are utterly juvenile – encourages underage drinking, then we should raise the minimum drinking age to 25, not ban alcopops.

This is not a case that the drinks companies are likely to want to make to Parliament, not least because the 18 to 25-year-old market for alcoholic drinks is so lucrative. But there could be other reasons. Bass, purveyor of Hooch, still awaits the outcome of Trade Secretary Margaret Beckett’s deliberations over the MMC’s inquiry into its proposed takeover of Carlsberg-Tetley. This is no time to take the Government on with arguments concerning the efficacy of drinks marketing to the under-25s.

Meanwhile, a debate in an industrialised western democracy over whether legally produced and marketed products should be banned is just plain embarrassing. Which, come to think of it, might be why the Metz man wears a mask.

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