Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2009

* Forced to Lie *

The drinks industry will feel uneasy about displaying dubious alcohol health guidelines

THE GOVERNMENT are planning to make it mandatory to show official guidelines on so-called safe drinking levels on all drinks packaging, and also to display them prominently in pubs. But the problem is that these guidelines – 2 to 3 “units” a day for women and 3 to 4 for men – were, as I pointed out last year, effectively plucked out of the air and have no scientific basis. In fact a study found that the healthiest group of men were those drinking slightly more than the “safe” level, and men had to routinely drink more than 63 units a week, or well over twice the guideline, before they exceeded the health risk for someone who drank nothing.

People’s body size and metabolism varies so much that it is impossible to define a one-size-fits-all level of “safe” drinking. These guidelines are effectively a kind of lowest common denominator below which alcohol consumption is highly unlikely to have any adverse health effects for anyone. But this does not mean that the opposite is true, that exceeding them is inevitably going to damage your health. If everybody religiously stuck to these limits, most of the brewing industry and pub trade would be put out of business, so brewers and licensees must feel very unhappy about being forced to display messages that they believe to be at best highly questionable, and which are potentially very damaging to their business.

We are now increasingly seeing these guidelines used to stigmatise people who by any reasonable standards would be regarded as very moderate drinkers. Recently we had Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb getting all worked up about a survey that showed 37% of adults had exceeded the guideline amounts in a particular week, in other words had consumed the equivalent of two pints of Robinson’s Unicorn in a day. Even more shockingly, 20% of adults had consumed double the guidelines on at least one day, which they could easily do by having three pints of a premium beer such as Abbot Ale.

There is no doubt that heavy consumption of alcohol over a period of time is likely to damage your health, but the idea that people who occasionally drink three pints in a day are storing up problems for the future seems completely detached from reality. Obviously in practice these guidelines will be widely ignored, but it would be very complacent to take the view that this means they are nothing to worry about. In the longer term, if they become generally accepted in society, they could seriously undermine the brewing industry and pub trade as we know them. 

* Restraint of Trade *

Restrictive covenants are curbing enterprise and competition in the pub trade

WITH LARGE NUMBERS of pubs now being disposed of by the major operators, there is a growing problem of the sellers seeking to place restrictive covenants on them to prevent future use as a pub. Of course, if a pub owner has a pub they no longer think is viable, they are fully entitled to sell it off. If nobody else thinks it is viable either, then it will be sold “for alternative use”. But if you can’t make a go of it yourself, and then try to stop anyone else trying to either, it is taking a distinctly dog-in-the-manger attitude. It is also simplistic to believe that the customers of one pub will automatically go to another one nearby if the first one is closed. There are plenty of thriving pubs up and down the country that had been cast off by major pub owners as “unviable”. Customers should be entitled to decide which pubs have a future rather than being dictated to by pub companies.

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