Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2000
How the drinks industry has cynically associated designer drinks with drug culture
Regular followers of this column will know that I hold no brief for the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which is basically a neo-prohibitionist body dressed up in reasonable clothes. They know very well that total prohibition is unachievable, but their long-term aims are the closure of large numbers of pubs and the raising of alcohol taxation to punitive levels. However, earlier this year they produced a paper that may well strike a chord with lovers of traditional pubs and beer.
The drinks industry, according to the IAS, has fought a "recreational drug war" in order to win back the youth market. In a consumer culture characterised by the search for instant gratification, one result has been the growth in teenage drunkenness. Drinking to get drunk is now the normal pattern for many young people. The search for "the big hit" is part of psychoactive culture among today's youth. In the past, drinking and pubs were part of a community life which included restraint and control. Now, young people with a hedonistic approach to life are looking for "time out" when they can put aside inhibition and control. Drinking and drug taking are part of this search.
The alcohol industry has had to deal with two challenges - the decline of the traditional alcohol market, such as the pub, and the explosion in the use of recreational drugs, which at one time threatened the industry with the loss of an entire generation. In response to these challenges, the industry has created a "post-modern alcohol market" of new designer drinks, aimed at young consumers and sold in café bars, theme pubs, and club bars. There has been an increase in the strength of alcoholic drinks in a direct attempt to compete in the "psychoactive market", and these new alcohol products are marketed in sophisticated campaigns which ape the language of drug culture and present them explicitly as psychoactive drugs. Fancy a judder, anyone?
When you see the dreadful tacky new outlets that have opened up, and the rubbishy pre-mixed cocktails that make up a large proportion of their sales, you can't avoid having some sympathy for this argument. In this new world of the designer alcohol drug, it is hard to see much room for the traditional pub and the sub-4% Mild and Bitter that for long were its staple drinks.
Of course, you have to take what the IAS say with a large pinch of salt, as they are looking for any stick with which to beat the drinks trade. They may talk about pubs once being part of a community life which included restraint and control, but in reality they want to see them closed down, whether street-corner boozer, rural inn or trendy bar. But what is certain is that the irresponsible actions of the major drinks companies are playing right into the hands of the neo-prohibitionists.
* Real Measure, Fake Beer *
You can now buy it in pints, but that's the only authentic thing about it
An interesting recent phenomenon is the introduction of one-pint cans for such dubious beverages as Heineken Cold Filtered and Boddingtons Strangeways Bitter (what?). Since there are no restrictions on packaged beer measures, they can get away with this so long as they declare the contents as "568 ml" too. A pity that the contents are nowhere near as traditional as the measure.