Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A weak argument

Something I’ve been hearing more often recently is that beer should be given more favourable tax and legislative treatment than other alcoholic drinks because it is “a low strength product”. Well yes, of course it is, but consumers generally make up for that by drinking larger quantities of it per glass. People don’t drink 4% bitters out of wine glasses, they drink pints.

There is a good argument for setting alcohol duties so that the actual purchase prices of the main product categories work out roughly the same in terms of pence per unit, which the current alcohol duty regime in the UK, whatever you may think of its absolute level, broadly does. The counter-argument that duty should be charged on a strict per unit basis would give an advantage to cheap spirits with a short maturation period, which could lead to adverse wider consequences.

But, even though I’m very fond of the stuff, overall there’s no real reason why beer deserves special favour. It’s undoubtedly responsible for more alcohol-related disorder than any other category of drinks and, while spirits are probably the favoured tipple of the true problem drinker, I’ve come across a few beer-drinking alcoholics in my time, and plenty of others whose level of beer consumption was clearly doing their health no good. If you had to pick out the alcoholic drink that, in a UK context, was least harmful in terms of both public disorder and long-term health problems, it would be wine.

What is more, one particular category of beer – super-strength lagers – has a very strong association with problem drinking. They’re entirely different, of course, from Old Tom and Duvel and American double IPAs and weird shit produced by BrewDog and sold in stuffed polecats, even if they’re the same strength. But to the health zealot, one 9% beer is much the same as another, even if it costs twice as much to buy.

This whole line of argument is doomed to failure as it is accepting the terms of debate constructed by the health lobby. “Our sort of alcohol isn’t that bad, really” doesn’t cut much ice. And, now that the line that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption” is increasingly gaining traction, it is blown out of the water. Best, surely, to defend both beer and pubs in robust terms for what they actually are.

It’s much the same as the rose-tinted bleating about the benefits of community pubs. As I said in the post, most pubs, even very good ones, don’t really qualify as “community pubs” in the way the term is meant, and the vision that is conjured up of people sitting around drinking their regulation one-and-a-half pints of 2.8% pisswater while discussing ways of raising money for disabled kids bears little relation to what goes on in real-world pubs.