Thames Reach
Thursday 18 September 2014
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The Government and alcohol watchdog that can’t handle its super-strength drink

8 July: 2008:

A can of Carlsberg Special Brew.
A can of Carlsberg Special Brew, a super strength lager.

Homelessness charity Thames Reach has slammed both the Government and the Portman Group for letting the drinks industry off the hook over the availability of dangerous nine per cent super-strength beers.

This follows the Portman Group’s Complaints Panel decision to reject a complaint from Thames Reach, concerning the production of super-strength lager containing four and a half units of alcohol in 500ml cans.

Of the four nine per cent lagers that were the subject of the Thames Reach complaint, three – Carlsberg Special Brew, Tennent’s Super, Skol Super –were deemed not to be in breach of the Portman Group’s Code of Practice on packaging and promoting alcohol.Thames Reach argued that producing superstrength lager in 500ml cans encouraged immoderate consumption, binge drinking and drunkenness.

Kestrel Super was, however, found to be in breach of the Portman Group complaint as the strength of the lager was the dominant theme in its marketing. Somewhat bizarrely, the Portman Group also decided to find against the product on the basis of the ‘textual references being reinforced by the prominent, stern image of a kestrel on the can’s front.’ New labelling is expected in the autumn.

Inbev, meanwhile, has voluntarily decided to reduce the size of the can of market leader Tennent’s Super to 440ml so that it no longer contains four and a half units of alcohol in a single can.

Jeremy Swain, Thames Reach Chief Executive, said: “In an ideal world we would like to see this harmful product banned. But InBev UK has to be applauded by putting people before profit, by taking the lead and reducing the can size. I would urge Carlsberg, so far depressingly impervious to our campaign, to respond to this brave step by reducing the can size of Special Brew and Skol Super at the earliest opportunity.”

He added: “These decisions completely discredit the Portman Group’s Complaints Panel. There we were thinking that the reason alcoholics drank super-strength lager in horrifying quantities was because they were marketed as ‘super-strength’ and at a size that ensures that the drinker can become inebriated after just two or three cans. Instead the panel have decided that consumer behaviour is, in fact, affected by the ‘stern image of a kestrel’.

“The panel’s conclusions that drinking a can of lager is comparable to consuming a bottle of wine in that neither vessel is meant to be re-sealable flies in the face of common sense. The public are well aware that a bottle of wine can be re-corked and saved, a can of lager is always consumed in one bout of drinking.”

Meanwhile, the Treasury has rejected an approach from Thames Reach to tax super-strength beers and ciders more heavily. A letter from the Treasury states that ‘an increase in price of a specific alcoholic drink... is not effective at decreasing harmful alcoholic consumption’. However, a recent letter from the Department of Health states that ‘the Department is aware….that increasing prices of alcohol through the tax system can, at least in the short term, reduce consumption levels’.

Chief Executive Jeremy Swain said: “It would be extremely helpful if the government could make up its mind on this crucial issue. We are convinced that increasing the price of strong lagers and decreasing the price of weaker lagers will lead to people moving off of the super-strengths and that lives will be saved. Australia has adopted this approach and reaped the benefits in terms of a reduction in alcohol-related health problems and we would urge a similar approach be adopted in the UK.”

Thames Reach’s own figures show that around 800 of the 4,000 homeless people it helps each year in London are addicted to super-strength lagers. In one of Thames Reach hostels, four people died last year as a result of liver failure brought about through addiction to super-strength lagers.

More details on the campaign.