Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September/October 2017
The anti-tobacco campaign is increasingly being used as a template for action against alcohol
LAST JULY saw the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in England. At the time, those of us who argued that the same kind of restrictions would increasingly be applied to alcohol and other categories of food and drink were pooh-poohed for scaremongering. Tobacco, they said, was clearly a special case. However, the claim of a slippery slope has proved to be more correct with each passing year, and it seems that producers of craft drinks have at last woken up to the threat.
Earlier this year, the “Observer” reported how Jared Brown, of craft gin distiller Sipsmith, had suddenly cottoned on to the threat to his business from graphic health warnings and plain packaging.
“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he asked. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”
“It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first,” said Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. “The debates around the tobacco advertising ban 15 years ago were that this was not a precedent, it will never happen with anything else, and yet last week the there were health campaigners saying the same thing should happen with alcohol.”
Of course, what applies to craft gin will equally apply to craft beer, and any other area of the food and drink market dependent on innovation and disrupting existing business models. It’s often argued that restrictions on advertising and promotion would curb big brands, but in fact the opposite is true. They always serve to benefit established players at the expense of new entrants, as the market is in effect ossified, and customers are forced to fall back on folk memory and what they ordered before.
It would now be absolutely impossible to introduce a new legitimate cigarette brand and, if the current tobacco advertising rules and display ban applied to alcohol, there would be no craft beers and no microbreweries, apart perhaps from pubs that brewed their own beer. And would even writing magazine articles about them be prohibited as a form of indirect advertising?
Some brewers’ response to post-ban decline comes across as utterly delusional
IN THE ten years since the smoking ban, the amount of beer sold in pubs and clubs has fallen by well over a third. While the ban isn’t the sole cause, nobody with any knowledge of the industry can deny that it has been a major factor. The effect has been felt particularly sharply amongst the smaller, wet-led local pubs.
So it is quite astounding how so many brewers and pub operators have done their best to put a brave face on what, by any standards, has been a disaster for their industry. Some have claimed that it has increased the appeal of pubs to women, despite the fact that more women smoke than men. And one brewery director, who had presided over selling off a quarter of his company’s pubs, said that “the pub trade has evolved to become stronger and more inclusive”.
Obviously business owners have to live in the real world rather than just moaning that life isn’t fair. But this comes across as very much like the manager of the spoof rock band Spinal Tap who, when asked why they were now playing in small theatres rather than arenas, replied that “their appeal has become more selective”.