06 August, 2010

Silly season puts drinks in spotlight In some spheres of media, there’s no getting away from familiar stereotypes. So it is that as temperatures rise, the ferocity of journalistic examination often cools. Yes, it’s the August silly season and the papers are awash with stories that wouldn’t normally warrant pinning on the parish noticeboard. With real news a bit thin on the ground, the drinks trade is a good place for the nationals to look. Hence the spate of coverage for Manchester’s plans to “break ranks” and introduce a minimum price for alcohol, a move eagle-eyed readers may recall us reporting in March.

Most stories overlooked the fact that Manchester, or any other city, lacked the power to initiate such a move because it’s currently illegal, and also missed the opportunity to report that the only outcome would be a boom for retailers in the neighbouring towns. These details aside, the headlines masked another more interesting angle – where the story had come from in the first place. The source was a press release issued by a public affairs company acting on behalf of the NHS Trust to secure support for its agenda. As momentum gathers for a unified industry response to challenges over pricing, with a ban on below-cost selling emerging as the most likely solution, it suits some quarters of the health lobby to reignite the debate for minimum price.

The timing and tone of this latest sabre-waving would be fairly innocuous were it not for the arrival of a much more remarkable press statement, from an extremely unexpected source.

All hail the media team at the Department of Health, who were quick to react to the Manchester story with a comment seeming to extinguish, rather than fan, the flames. It informs that, while it is committed to tough action on alcohol, it acknowledges “supply and price are far from the only factors driving alcohol misuse. Demand and attitudes are crucial”.

There’s also talk of the psychology of drinking to excess, and a desire by the government to challenge “negative social norms and promote the positives”.

The message from government seems to be: “We’re making progress on this – we’ve got two consultations underway. Now let us get on with it.” Silly season might be alive and well in the media, but the government’s reaction points to signs of an altogether more informed new era in the alcohol debate.

The word on the stripCalls by the Federation of Wholesale Distributors for strip stamps on beer have ignited a fierce debate in the brewing world. Part of the group’s ongoing campaign to stop duty fraud, the idea might act as a deterrent to brewers flooding foreign markets with more stock than demand warrants, fuelling claims that some makes it back into the UK without paying the correct duty.

Whether the concept wins Treasury support remains to be seen but the FWD’s lobbying could also put wine under the spotlight. After all, if strip stamps appear on beer and spirits, wine could easily be forced to follow.


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