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Posted February 2010

The empire strikes back

Alcohol policies | Will I live to the ripe old age of 93 because I have never touched alcohol, but have eaten lots of wholemeal bread, done my exercises and gone to bed early? Or will I escape the Grim Reaper because I enjoy my food and drink, don’t say no to pork crackling followed by two vodkas, organise a large family, listen to Mozart operas and obey the whims of our cat? The self-styled experts in the field of alcohol research will probably underline the former, whereas any self-respecting scientist will argue: that depends. There are thousands of factors influencing our daily life. Yet, again and again, anti-alcohol lobbyists grab the headlines with findings which turn almost everybody, expect perhaps for the fundamentalist teetotaller, into a self-abusing binge drinker and hence a burden on society.

It would be easy to laugh at the anti-alcohol lobby given their often arbitrary and self-serving definitions of excess alcohol consumption. However, alcohol producers had better be watchful this year as anti-alcohol policies will dominate the media around the world, following initiatives by the WHO, the EU and various national governments aimed at clamping down on citizens who indulge in “vice”.

The European alcohol industry probably heaved a sigh of relief when Sweden’s six-month rotating presidency of the EU was over at the end of December 2009. For obvious reasons, brewers and distillers had been nervous about Sweden pushing for tougher action on alcohol-related harm.

Surprisingly, and to the alcohol industry’s great relief, the Swedes’ proposal did not take as hard a line on alcohol as some had anticipated. How come? 

For decades, the Swedes had wagged the finger at the rest of the world. From Sweden’s lofty point of view, all governments that did not impose prohibitive measures on alcohol consumption were lenient, not to say, negligent of public health. Successive Swedish governments have defended policies which aim at curbing people’s access to alcohol tout court. It seemed as if the Nordic country’s raison d’etat was built on the dogma of prohibition: keep people away from the bottle and they will live happily ever after. To that end, Sweden has maintained high taxes on alcohol, retained the state’s alcohol retail monopoly and restricted advertising even after the country joined the EU in 1995.

Never mind that Swedish citizens voted with their feet and started bringing in loads of cheap booze from Germany by way of “personal imports” as soon as they became members of the EU, Swedish governments in what can only be called a total denial of reality have continued to reiterate their dogmatic stance on alcohol consumption.

But in view of the global economic crisis, when millions of Europeans were threatened with the loss of their jobs, even the Swedes realised during their presidency that European governments had more important things to worry about than putting the ills of alcohol consumption high on their political agendas.

Perhaps it helped that European brewers had come out with a timely study of their own (“Swedish Alcohol Policies – an effective policy?” by the Swedish Retail Institute, August 2009) which provided plenty of evidence that Sweden’s own alcohol policies weren’t half as effective as the government claimed them to be. In a clever move, The Brewers of Europe had asked a Swedish research body to investigate alcohol consumption. And what kind of evidence did the Swedes come up with? Well, that currently almost thirty percent of all beer consumed in Sweden isn’t purchased via the official channel Systembolaget but comes into the country via personal imports and/or smuggling. Even more sobering must have been the finding that if unregistered alcohol consumption is taken into account, total alcohol consumption in Sweden, as measured in litres of pure alcohol per person, is as high as Britain’s or Germany’s.

In other words, far from curbing alcohol consumption, tightened restrictions on alcohol sales in Sweden have in fact bred an underground market for bootleg alcohol. What makes matters worse is that the availability of alcohol to young people is greater than ever. Although you have to be 20 years of age to purchase alcohol legally, few youngsters seem to have any problem buying alcohol these days. Just go and look for a kiosk which sells the stuff from under the counter or find some old age pensioner who runs a racket of bringing cheap booze into the country which he then flogs off to friends and family.  

 

No, we are not blinkered

These research results may have come as a surprise to the Swedish government – which immediately robustly dismissed them - but they did not in the least astound me. All the people I know in Sweden have stacks of imported alcohol sitting in their garden sheds. Not only that, all of them claim to have access to (or even own) equipment to produce moonshine, or what the locals call “skogsstjärnan”("forest star" referring to the stars on brandy bottles). Now, if I were to make an extrapolation on my anecdotal evidence, I ought to conclude … – no, I won’t.

Still, Sweden issued a statement at the end of its EU presidency which calls upon national governments to implement the EU alcohol strategy with renewed vigour, thus underlining Sweden’s long-held conviction that only by raising the legal drinking age, by banning alcohol advertising, increasing excise and placing warning labels on alcohol containers could Europe's bad drinking habits be curbed.

The alcohol debate in Europe, if I were to sum it up, has been dominated by shrill polemics, dodgy statistics and funny findings for years. Dominated by the Nordic countries and the UK, the debate has been fuelled by cash-strapped governments that want to disguise fiscal greed as public good; by reformers, improvers and other dogmatic do-gooders, who, secure in their belief in their monopoly on virtue, have set their eyes on alcohol and sugar as the “new tobacco”; and finally by the media itself, which knows only too well that jazzed up stories on alcohol sell well.      

As a consequence, the alcohol debate has been going round and round in circles. For propagandistic purposes, theories have been rehashed, which have never really rung true. And as time goes by they stand even less of a chance of passing the reality test. But who cares? And who is to complain?

What galls me, and presumably a fair number of our readers too, is the chutzpah displayed by the “bring-down-consumption-by-all-means”-faction when it comes to blanking out all evidence that could call their claims into question.

 

Out of sight out of mind

Take beer advertising and alcohol consumption. Again and again brewers have had to defend themselves against the accusation that it just takes one look at a glossy beer ad and all of us will start salivating for the real stuff. However, things are not as simple as that. Look at Germany, Europe’s major beer market. Although total advertising spent on beer has ranged between EUR 350 million and EUR 400 million per year for the past decade or so, beer consumption has gone down: from 130 litres per capita in 1998 to 110 litres in 2009.  What are we allowed to conclude? That consumption is not only determined by the level of advertising consumers are exposed to? Exactly. Eastern Germany is another case in point. During communist times, Eastern German breweries did not advertise at all. Yet beer consumption stood at 143 litres per capita in 1988 – the year before the Wall came down.

This sort of data should give every public health advocate reason to pause. Yet what do they do instead? They hammer home the point that advertisements for booze are to be blamed if people drink too much.  

I am afraid you have to be a subscriber to www.brauweltinternational.com to read the rest of this report.

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