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        The politics of drinking

August 07, 2013



Alcopops: the demon drinks

So it’s official. Last week the BBC announced ‘The Quiet Death of the Alcopop’. Strangely, the report was both belated and exaggerated. RTDs, or ready-to-drinks, as the industry prefers to call them, have for a long time in the UK been reduced to two brands, SHS Drinks’ WKD and Global Brands’ VK, and you can’t really think of them in terms of a category.

What we have, though, is a proliferation of fruit-flavoured ciders and alcoholic ginger beers. What’s the difference between these and alcopops? Well, they have fermented rather than a distilled spirit base*.

As far as the drinker’s concerned, though, they are the same. They are another sweeter, less-challenging, form of alcohol. Alcohol for people who don’t like alcohol.

The market for this sort of drink goes back some way.

When my mum was a teenage binge drinker her preferred tipple was brown ale. In my early drinking days I favoured light and mild – I presume because the sweeter draught mild took the bitter edge off the bottled pale ale.

In the period before alcopops, sweet ciders and fizzy perries were popular among the young. In developing new fruit varieties cider is only reclaiming lost ground.

So why all the fuss about the 1990s RTDs?

It’s true that alcopops were, in a weak way, the drinks industry’s response to the alcohol-free rave culture that threatened traditional youth markets. I say weak because it’s hard to see how an alcoholic lemonade could challenge a drug like ecstasy head-on.

Nevertheless, they caught on fast with young people looking for something less serious than a grown-up drink without running the legal risks associated with illicit substances.

But what really made the difference was the media reaction and the political context. Alcopops were seized on, as indeed raves were seized on, as evidence of a moral lack among young people. And behind that a fear that they might never grow up into loyal, productive citizens.

Alcopops were also closely linked, of course, to scares about binge drinking, which also had a real basis – the boom in large, densely-packed bars and pubs in town and city centres and the consequent disorder and photo-opportunities.

The terms ‘binge drinking’ and ‘alcopop’ are media constructions, however. They are ways of interpreting and distorting realities in such a way that they become politically charged, become perceived as a threat.

This is similar to what sociologists would describe as a moral panic. Technically, though, the alcopop falls short of the definition because there is no folk devil, the minority group that completed Stanley Cohen’s book title and theory. (Whether binge drinking and the binge drinker might qualify is open to more debate).

Still, there was a panic and it was moral. And the alcopop itself was the devil.

A similar job might have been done on flavoured ciders and alcoholic ginger beers. But it wasn’t. Whatever causes the panics and the demonisation it’s got little to do with the liquid in the bottle.

*In fact, back in 1995 the UK’s first two alcopops, Two Dogs and Hooper’s Hooch, were for the first few months made from fermented lemon juice. They could have called them lemon ciders.

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