Shortly before Christmas, the Department of Health (DoH) announced the removal of 1.3 billion units of alcohol from the UK drinks market as part of its Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD).
The drinks industry had pledged to remove 1 billion units by December 2015. So, according to the DoH, this target was met and exceeded a year ahead of schedule.
So far so good. But how has this affected public health and drinking habits?
The reduction has mainly been achieved by lowering the average strength of all beer sold, from 4.42% ABV in 2011 to 4.14% in 2013. This is intended to encourage a new market for weaker beers.
There are some good lower-strength beers out there, such as Adnams Sole Star, Greene King Tolly and Manns Brown Ale. These compare well with stronger ales in terms of taste and quality, and are cheaper due to reduced duty on beers of 2.8% and lower. However, good luck finding them on the shelves of your local supermarket.
These and other 2.8% ales were certainly in evidence during 2012 and 2013; I know because I bought my share of them. But since new year 2014 they seem gradually to have thinned out to the point where, in my experience, 2.8% ABV is a relative rarity.
My nearest supermarket is fairly typical. Most of the beers displayed at eye level are of higher strength – 5% or 6% – which equates to 2.5 to 3 units in a single bottle. Two bottles take a man well over his recommended daily “allowance” of 3-4 units.
By hunting around I can usually find one or two lower-strength beers, sitting sheepishly on the bottom shelf or tucked away next to the alcohol-free beer and shandy. But the relative abundance of 2012 and 2013 has gone.
A cynic might conclude that the big retailers made a point of promoting lower-strength beers in the early years of the PHRD, only to drop them quietly in favour of more profitable high-strength brands once the target of 1 billion units was met. Surely not.
Which brings me to the point of this post. The drinks industry and retailers deserve credit for improved labelling of alcoholic drinks and for initiatives to promote sensible drinking. It was also a good idea to remove 1 billion units from the market. However, these measures will only affect public health if retailers actively promote lower-strength products. If they hide them away, or worse fail to stock them, drinkers will carry on buying their usual higher-strength brands, and drinking patterns will remain unchanged.