Reducing the Strength schemes show weakness

Reducing the Strength schemes are on the ropes as the buzz around them has died down and retailers are feeling confident to resist. 

The schemes generated a lot of publicity after Ipswich gained national coverage for its scheme, which encouraged retailers to strip shelves of beer and cider with an abv of 6.5% and above.

The schemes spread across the country to various pockets, but OLN, trade bodies and the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group fought back after our readers said they felt bullied into joining so-called voluntary schemes that were poorly targeted and ineffective. 

Julie Byers, public affairs executive at the Association of Convenience Stores, said Reducing the Strength schemes “have gone quiet”.

When asked by OLN if this is because they are being implemented under the radar, or if they have simply dried up, she said: “I don’t think schemes are being introduced under the radar. If they were we would be hearing about it from our members. When Ipswich and Portsmouth really publicised their schemes, a lot more came in. 

“But unlike Ipswich, where it was a multifaceted approach addressing things like housing, they were just putting a ban on the products.”

Liam Hetherington, trade and legislation officer at the Co-operative Group, told OLN: “I would second that. We aren’t hearing about new schemes being launched.”

Byers said: “We encourage retailers to make their own judgement because there are some competition risks. 

“We have heard from retailers that they know who the street drinkers are that these schemes are generally targeting, and they would rather refuse them an individual sale than join up to the voluntary initiative. 

“It’s not only street drinkers who buy these products. It’s moderate drinkers as well, and retailers would rather refuse that individual sale where they know that person is a problem drinker rather than stop the sale to everyone. That might be why people aren’t signing up.” 

David Wilson, public affairs director at the British Beer & Pub Association, said: “Some of the authorities jumped on the bandwagon when they saw what happened in Ipswich. What they didn’t see in Ipswich was the huge amount of wraparound care and support and the holistic approach being taken to deal with a very specific issue, which crudely was taken in my view to improve the town image, so they had to do something about the people drinking in the street. 

“There were other reasons for helping and supporting those people, but that was initially the driver.” 

He added: “A lot of other local authorities saw it as an opportunity to impose new conditions on stores to restrict the strength of a number of products they were not particularly keen for people to drink. I don’t think that’s the role of a local authority in that context. It’s not their place to make those judgments. So for most of us we should be allowed to exercise our personal responsibility. 

“I like high-strength beers, but I know I can’t and shouldn’t drink a lot of them, so I don’t buy huge volumes. But I wouldn’t want a supermarket to refuse to sell me a beer because it’s over a certain abv. 

“Now that is the logic some of the authorities have used, where you create a list and the only thing that determines what’s on that list is the abv of that beer. Some people drink Special Brew because they like the taste of it. They are not addicts or street drinkers. It’s their preferred drink of choice. Do you then say, well OK that has to be removed from every market because it happens to be the drink some street drinkers have been found drinking? I don’t think so. 

“It’s a tough argument to have but I don’t think these localised initiatives – unless they are absolutely, entirely voluntary, and I’m dubious as to whether some of them have been absolutely, entirely voluntary given the role of the licensing authority in this – should be unchallenged, and the industry is challenging them, for those reasons that we believe it’s about personal responsibility.”

Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra beer, added: “You can’t just say all beer is bad and should be banned. Belgian beers, some of the best in the world, are often 7%-8% abv. Our flagship beer, King Cobra, which is double fermented in Belgium, is 7.5% abv. One has to be sensible but we all know the type of people who should not be served. To blanket ban it would not be right.”

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