Time to all pull together and set goals

30 November, 2007

christopher carson tells graham holter about the latest duty Call

Christopher Carson is a man on a mission. As chairman of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, he is appalled at the kicking the industry is getting at the moment - and is calling on the trade to put on a united front in an effort not only to defend its good name, but to rebuff the spurious facts that are being used to batter the makers and sellers of alcoholic drinks.

Carson believes that, without a concerted effort, the industry lays itself open to the nightmare scenario of huge duty increases, restrictions on advertising and marketing, and an expansion of the new licensing legislation about to be visited on Scotland.

"Who isn't on the bandwagon to put down the alcohol beverages industry?" he asks. "The Tories say to Labour we have a broken society; the medics are calling for blood in the form of increased taxation; and the media has incessantly written about binge drinking and alcohol misuse. They are not looking at the true facts and statistics. They refer to older statistics which do not tell the real story.

"Britain is suffering from a cultural problem in terms of alcohol, and a minority is over-consuming to the point of causing either harm to their health or misbehaving to a point in some cases of attacking violently.

"I believe the alcohol beverage industry wants - and above all, needs - a more favourable trading and social environment in the UK.

"We should aim to get an all-party Parliamentary group, plus medics and other important interested groups, as well as a united industry group of associations, to sit down and review the most recent trends. Then agree on the objectives and goals and set targets.

"Is it possible? I have to say I don't know.

"My concern is partly related to some of the recent media that's going on. If you had only been in the industry for the past 12 months you would start to wonder what you were selling. But the facts are giving a completely different picture. The reality is the industry hasn't stepped up to the plate and said 'we've had enough'."

Carson is keen for the industry to stop kicking lumps out of itself - the on vs off-trade spat has resulted in some unhelpful headlines and creates the impression of a divided trade. The important thing to stress is that, despite what many have claimed, alcohol consumption is going down - it fell by 3 per cent in 2006, the largest decline for 15 years.

"There is a very consistent trend. People are now starting to analyse what they are drinking. Drinkaware's website is getting a lot of hits each week. Some of the sterling stuff that's taking place in the on-trade with happy hours has helped. Challenge 21 has helped. Lots of things have helped."

Carson also cites

evidence showing that children are exposed to less alcohol advertising than in the past, and that 46 per cent of 11 to 13-year-olds now say they have never drunk, compared

with 35 per cent in 2005 (see page 8). "All the trends are going the right way," he says

The big worry is that the government, under pressure from the Department of Health and against the best advice of the Treasury, will impose a heavy duty increase on alcohol in a ham-fisted attempt to control binge drinking.

"There are certainly senior people in the industry who are very concerned that it's a very real threat. The chances are that we're likely to see quite a big tax increase. In recent years we've had 3p or 4p on wine. There's speculation it could be anything between 10p and 15p a bottle, and 20p should not be ruled out. I have even heard people talk in terms of 30 per cent," he says.

"The WSTA Budget submission in January will be highlighting the fact that raw materials are moving up - not just grapes, but grain and all sorts. Climate change has meant shortages of most agricultural products

and, coupled with the rising price of oil, freight and glass, one way or another we will see - regardless of taxation - price changes working their way through to the high street by spring of next year. It's not unrealistic to think that wine would be going up by between 20p and 50p a bottle regardless of tax.

"If you put a big tax on top, it would be fair to say it would be killing the goose that la id the golden egg. It just opens the doors to cross-border trading again. You get white van business and if that starts happening you lose control over the way alcohol is sold. Who's going to do Challenge 21 in the white vans?

"The Treasury does not say that taxation is the solution here. The Treasury's role is to try to take revenue up.

It doesn't want tax taken up to a point when it turns sales down and they end up with less revenue."

The arrival of the Alcohol Health Alliance has raised the stakes. It may not have many new arguments up its sleeve, but it has won widespread publicity for the old ones - and perpetuated a media myth that Britain is being plied with booze by a greedy and socially

malevolent drinks industry.

"The industry needs to start defending itself and get the real facts out into the open so the consumer knows exactly what's happening.

"The WSTA is working on a campaign aimed at the media to ensure the right facts get presented. My concern is that if the industry doesn't unite to really start addressing some of this stuff it will be too late. Look what happened to the tobacco industry."

So what is the nightmare scenario we could face in 10 years' time?

"I don't think it will take 10 years," Carson says. "We could see a very different world in three to five years. If taxation was pushed up and we ended up with a ban on advertising and great big restrictions on the way in which we market, we will just end up with commodities. It will drive the industry towards an EDLP situation."

Scotland's new licensing laws are a worry for the WSTA and the wider industry. If the system works, it may be imposed on the rest of the country, or at least held up as an example of what an obedient industry ought to do voluntarily. But aspects of the reforms, including the control of pricing and promotions, are legally dubious, Carson claims.

"In our opinion some of the legislation they're working to push through is against the EU Competition Commission and the Competition Act," he says. "The curious thing is if we challenge Scotland on this, we'd have to do it through Brussels - and Brussels doesn't recognise Scotland because it reports into Whitehall. So we'd be challenging the British government. That's a really big political job."

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