Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2004

* Health and Hypocrisy *

Recommended consumption levels on drinks packaging may be offering a hostage to fortune

IN AN ATTEMPT to combat concerns about binge drinking and excessive consumption, Britain’s biggest brewer Scottish Courage has announced it is to label all its bottles and cans with the number of alcohol units they contain. They are also going to add health warnings stating recommended daily levels of consumption.

Nobody can object to unit labelling, as it is simply giving consumers useful information. Many packaged drinks already have it. It is hard to imagine that twenty years ago few beers or wines even declared their percentage alcohol content. However, the point must be made that since they have started to do so, the average strength of drinks has tended to increase, rather undermining the suggestion that this will encourage a more health-conscious approach.

The recommended daily consumption levels – 2 to 3 units for women and 3 to 4 for men – are something else entirely. It is more than a little hypocritical for a brewer to quote these figures, as they know very well that the vast majority of the people in the average pub on a Friday night will be cheerfully ignoring them. If everybody stuck rigidly to this advice, it is likely that three-quarters of the pubs in the country would close and Scottish Courage’s sales would fall off a cliff. It is also ludicrous to suggest that occasionally exceeding these figures is likely to have any adverse effect on health.

It is easy to dismiss such worries as doom-mongering, but there must be a serious concern that such limits will become cast in stone as a definition of a healthy lifestyle. Given the growing witchhunt against smokers by employers (even if they never smoke during working time), it is not difficult to imagine them in future seeking to discriminate against those “heavy drinkers” who may on occasion consume the life-threatening quantity of two pints of Unicorn (4.8 units) at one sitting.

* The Moon Drowned *

The Wetherspoon chain has lost what once made it distinctive, and may lose its independence too

AS I WRITE, Wetherspoon’s Moon Under Water on Deansgate, their first outlet in Manchester, is in the process of being transformed into a Lloyds No.1 Bar. Several others of their first-generation pubs are to suffer the same fate.

The Wetherspoon chain started out in London in the 1980s offering a refreshing antidote to the raucous theme pubs that were popular at the time. Their formula of real ale, all-day food, reasonable prices, comfortable seating and no TV or music attracted many people back into pubs who had been driven away.

They were highly successful and not surprisingly decided to expand across the country from their initial base. But, in an attempt to appeal more to younger drinkers, the original formula was steadily whittled away, with benches replaced by posing tables, promotions increasingly dominated by shots and alcopops, and standards of customer service dropping. The Lloyds brand, with its loud music and restricted beer range, was an even more blatant attempt to pander to the youth market. In the process, what had made the chain distinctive was largely lost.

One of the biggest causes of business failure is straying too far from what made you a success in the first place, and recently Wetherspoon’s have issued profit warnings while takeover talk swirled around them. You do have to wonder how long they will survive before being snapped up by one of the other big operators.

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