grey areas than a late Rothko
licence bans on superstrength beers
The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) has joined the drinks
industry’s call for the European Commission to outlaw local licensing
authority schemes that persuade retailers to remove high strength beers
and ciders from their shelves.
Almost 100 councils are believed to have introduced similar initiatives
following the apparent success of the Reducing the Strength operation in
Although the retailer boycott of beers and ciders above, typically, 6.5%
abv is aimed at cheap super strength products and the people who tend to
drink them, SIBA fears that its members’ premium ‘craft’ brews
will be swept up alongside them.
While there appears to be little more than anecdotal evidence that this
is happening, brewers have been asked to submit examples to support the
organisation’s submission that the schemes breach European competition
“Our members take great pride in the excellence and range of their
beers,” said SIBA managing director Mike Benner. “They make beers
for everyday drinking, beers to accompany food, and beers for
connoisseurs to savour and sip. Many of these are fabulous, complex
brews of higher strength and great repute.
“As a responsible organisation we absolutely support proportionate,
effective measures to reduce alcohol misuse, but we do not support any
intervention which is not within the law. We have significant concerns
about the proportionality and legality of these schemes.
“It is our understanding that licensed retailers who agree to
participate in these schemes run a serious risk of infringing
competition law by engaging in a coordinated boycott of certain
SIBA’s, perhaps surprising, move comes in a week when doubts have been
raised about whether such schemes are, in any case, effective.
Off Licence News reported
that Newcastle, Portsmouth and Dover have experienced increases in
alcohol-related disorder since introducing the initiative.
Councils rushed to copy the Ipswich Reducing the Strength scheme when
the Suffolk council reported that a year into its launch in September
2012 numbers of street drinkers had halved and there had been a 24%
decline in ‘street drinker events’.
What wasn’t perhaps emphasised enough was that the Ipswich super
strength ban was just one point in a 36-point plan called ‘Start
Afresh’. This included the appointment of outreach workers to make
contact with and offer help to 70 identified street drinkers, along with
a wet centre where they could more easily be found and talked to.
Police also made use of Section 77 notices to move drinkers from their
regular spots, and the council went as far as giving migrant drinkers
their air fare home to get them off the streets.
Removing super strength beers and ciders from 64% of the town’s off
licences might well have contributed to the disruption of street drinker
lifestyles, but outside the context of a range of multi-agency
interventions it’s not clear how it helps.
That’s not the only problem. As SIBA has highlighted, trying to target
a section of the population through a product they are perceived to
consume is fraught with difficulty and confusion. How do you make sure
you’re not accidently hitting the wrong products and the wrong people?
Police and local authorities have insisted that it’s only the cheaper
super strengths they have in mind, and some have produced named lists of
the brands they want off the shelves.
But because they have to be seen to be voluntarily boycotting products
retailers may conclude it’s simpler and safer to include everything
above a higher strength.
While some, most notably the East of England Co-op group of stores, have
enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get good PR and move
up-market, other shopkeepers have felt cajoled into the ban, worried
they might get on the wrong side of the licensing authorities if they
There are examples of new shops that have agreed to have a super
strength ban incorporated into the conditions on their licence. By a
similar logic, only this week a craft beer store in Cleethorpes promised
to introduce minimum unit pricing in order to secure a licence amid
The industry’s case in Europe rests on whether local licensing
authorities have made concerted efforts to coordinate these boycotts,
rather than approaching retailers individually.
But there are more grey areas here than a late Rothko.
27th July 2015
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