As it took place on the same day that the smoking ban in Britain’s licensed premises came into force, I asked if the same sort of restrictions might extend to alcohol. No, came the somewhat sniffy reply. Alcohol and tobacco were totally different to each other, the new chairman told me like he was talking to an idiot. “Nobody ever claimed smoking in moderation was healthy,” he informed me.
Let’s not debate here whether drinking in moderation is healthy. Much more to the point, once upon a time the tobacco companies did associate smoking with healthy, cool living, as those of a certain age will attest. Anybody remember the illustrated ads of scantily clad blond-haired youngster with Adonis bodies smoking on the beach? Or Marlboro men riding into the sunset on the open plains of America? Hardly synonymous with someone from Trainspotting hacking his way through a filterless fag, is it?
At the time of that press conference I was surprised at the complacency of the chairman’s comments, as I am of the cynical view that if you give interfering busy-bodies an inch, they’ll not only take a mile, they’ll take the entire motorway.
So perhaps the biggest surprise about an article I read in a British Sunday newspaper at the back end of January was that it has taken so long for the culture police to turn their attentions to alcohol packaging. Quoting a British government advisory body and a report published by the University of Liverpool, the article stated that there were calls for a larger health warning on the front of bottles of alcohol, graphic photography on labels, and plain packaging.
This is not only ridiculous, it’s deeply disturbing. After all, the industry regulates itself now and, through initiatives such as Drinkaware, already effectively enforces health and pregnancy warnings on bottles and cans containing alcohol. No such warnings are put on other equally potentially unhealthy products such as packets of sweets and bottles of fizzy drinks. And anyway, does anyone still believe that excessive drinking is not bad for you?
In the feature a spokesman for the Institute of Economic Affairs directly linked the move against alcohol with that of the ban on smoking 15 years ago. Without that tobacco legislation, this would never be happening, he said.
It’s a real threat to the drinks business. Just think how dull the bar would look if homogenous plain packaging came into effect. And imagine the effect on producers of beautifully packaged boutique and artisan spirits.
The irony is the move would have the opposite effect to what the do-gooders would want. It would suit mass-produced standard and inferior products and be detrimental to premium products. It would lead to a dumbing down in an industry that has increasingly encouraged drinkers to drink less but better.
We have to fight this. The industry has to raise its concerns loudly and constantly, and everyone involved must speak to customers and anyone who enjoys an alcoholic drink. This move could destroy our industry. Perhaps you could get away with complacency at the turn of the Millennium, it just won’t cut it now.