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Alcopops? Chill out, says Jennie Bristow

Popping mad

To see how far a panic can go in a week, you have to look no further than a bottle of Hooper's Hooch.

On Sunday 11 May, a Sunday Times undercover investigation 'revealed' that alcopops sales executives were targeting underage drinkers. On Monday 12 May, a report published by Health Promotion Wales blamed alcopops for a rise in the number of underage drinkers. On Thursday 15 May, Channel Four broadcast Health Alert: 'Mine's an alcopop', which claimed that a rising number of young people are suffering from alcohol poisoning and pinned much of the blame on alcopops. That same evening, a judge at Bolton Crown Court blamed alcopops for causing a 14-year-old boy to burn down a local school, even though he had been drinking cider as well. On Friday 16 May, the Sun published a survey of 700 teenagers, claimed that kids as young as 10 are hooked on alcopops, and called for stricter regulation. Later that day New Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered an urgent investigation into alcopops and hinted at a ban.

How could a bottle of sickly-sweet alcoholic pop cause so much instant consternation?

Over the past two years, the alcopop has been accused of a series of serious crimes. Because it is alcoholic pop it is simultaneously accused of being too alcoholic and masquerading as a soft drink. Because teenagers are the main drinkers of alcopops, it is accused of encouraging underage drinking. Because drinking sometimes causes health problems, it is accused of making young people ill. And because drinking is seen to be linked to crime, the alcopop is said to be encouraging youth crime.

Taken together, these accusations build up a picture of young kids getting pissed on alcopops because they think it is lemonade, going out to mug an old lady and ending up in a casualty ward with liver failure. A frightening picture - if it were true. A closer look at some evidence, however, suggests that the alcopop has been framed. Which leads me to suspect that there is something other than the content of alcopops being discussed here.

Look for example at the claim that alcopops appear too similar to soft drinks. Maybe if you are blind, illiterate or have no sense of smell they do. But apart from having the word 'alcoholic' and the percentage of alcohol by volume slapped across the front, they do not taste the same as soft drinks. Kids claiming that they did not know that they were drinking alcohol are just updating the old excuse - 'He spiked my drink with vodka mum. I had no idea, honest', used to avoid getting into trouble after a heavy night out. In fact, the only incentive to drink these disgusting concoctions is that they boast their percentage by volume on the label: as anybody who has ever been a teenager should know, you go for the cheapest and quickest way of consuming loads of alcohol, and if that is alcopops rather than the Pernod and Black I used to drink, so be it. As 15-year-old alcopop fans Oona and Sophie told me, 'We wouldn't drink them if there was no alcohol in them, would we?'.

Okay. So what about Jack Straw's point that 'we all know the links between alcohol abuse and crime'. Well, do we? As Home Office Press Officer Helen Stow admitted, you would be hard pushed to find statistics proving this link. She sent me a research document filled with a few local figures, a bit of sociology and lots of psychological notions about the kinds of people who have a predisposition to commit a crime on their way home from a pub: predominantly young white unemployed males, the usual suspects. Meanwhile, the Home Office's own figures on juvenile convictions and cautions show a marked decline in recent years (from 272 000 in 1981 to 179 000 in 1995). It is doubtful whether the arrival of alcopops has reversed this trend - and even if they say it has, nobody in the Home Office has the figures to base that assumption on.

So what about health? According to the Office for National Statistics, a total of three people aged 19 and under died from alcohol in England and Wales in 1995. As a spokesperson for the Department of Health explained, 'you would have to drink excessive amounts for alcohol to have an immediate effect, and that's not what is happening'. Channel Four's Health Alert programme suggested that as many as 5000 under-16s may be admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol every year: broken down, this works out at less than 100 per week over the whole country. If you imagine how many young people are out on a Saturday night in any large town, and remember that stomach-pumping has always gone on for teenagers who have had a few too many, it is possible to put these figures into perspective.

And what about the most irrefutable evidence of all - that alcopops have caused a rise in underage drinking? Not so irrefutable after all, it would seem. The widely reported Health Promotion Wales research that caused so much publicity is, as PR and Media Manager Phil Hutchinson boasted, 'the first time people have ever been able to put figures on children liking alcopops'. In fact the 'report' that caused the stink was actually a press release (I was told the full report would not be available for three weeks) headlined 'Alcopops fuel teen drinking rise', and sent out to coincide with the Channel Four documentary on alcopops and health, so it was hardly agenda free. And the findings of the report, even as publicised in the press release, seemed to indicate nothing more than a positive desire to link alcopops with underage drinking.

The report showed that, among 15-16 year olds, 30 per cent of girls and 24 per cent of boys claim to drink alcopops, and 65 per cent of boys and 54 per cent of girls say they drink alcohol, at least weekly. As there is no indication of how much they drink, the fact that just > over half of young people might have a tipple once a week does not seem particularly shocking. And yes, the figures have gone up. Ten years previously in 1986, well before the birth of alcopops, Health Promotion Wales' figures showed that 49 per cent of boys and 38 per cent of girls aged 15-16 claimed to drink alcohol weekly. But relying on teenagers' boasting is not generally considered to be a sound research method - especially when they are revelling in the shock value of breaking a fashionable new taboo. More importantly, even if it is taken as given that there has been a rise in underage drinking, the link between this and alcopops is, to say the least, tenuous.

The only thing the survey showed was that young people drink alcopops among other things. When you scour the press release to find out where the headline 'Alcopops fuel teen drinking rise' came from, the 'statistics' get even more confusing. 'A significant minority of 11-16 year olds who drink alcopops do not drink other forms of alcohol. For example, 26 per cent of 15-16 year old girls drink alcopops only, suggesting that alcopop drinkers are not just those who already consume alcohol.' Now look at this again. There is a minority so 'significant' it is not even quantified. The one figure provided proves nothing. If alcopops did not exist, those 15-16 year old girls would have been just as likely to drink some other alcoholic concoction as they would to stick to lemonade. They are the first generation to whom alcopops are available when you have your first drink. The only point made here is a tautology: alcopops exist, therefore people drink them, therefore people drink. This is a far cry from saying that alcopops cause otherwise teetotal youngsters to start drinking alcohol.

There is no case against the alcopop on any of the charges levelled. Then why will it be convicted and sent down by a unanimous jury verdict? The ingredients of an alcopop - alcohol and carbonated water - did not trigger the panic. The ingredients of the discussion around alcopops, however, make it suited to be a major moral panic of our times and a perfect target for New Labour's ban-happy lifestyle policemen.

Think about the potent cocktail of issues that has been brought together through the alcopops row. A new alcoholic drink comes on the market - at a time of loud concern about 'lifestyle related illnesses' and public disorder. This new alcoholic drink is consumed by young people - at a time when the papers are full of stories about 'the end of innocence' and children out of control. The alcopops industry is no small business - at a time when multi-million pound corporations are decidedly unfashionable, alcopops are worth an estimated £375m ('the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in retail history' - Sunday Times, 10 May 1997). At a time when it is presumed that people need only smoke one fag, consume one drink or take one tablet in order to be 'addicted', the idea that youth are being seduced into drinking fuels fears of life-long dependency. And at a time when people are assumed to be gullible fools unduly affected by imagery, the colourful lettering on alcopops bottles acts as a red rag to a bull for the anti-advertising lobby.

Alcohol, crime, profit, health, addiction, advertising, children. When a bottle of spiked lemonade can become linked with so many concerns, the real extent of these links ceases to matter. Like many suspects falsely accused of a crime, the alcopop is not the victim of a conspiracy: it was introduced in the wrong place at the wrong time, and happens to be the right 'type' to fit the frame. But the sentence facing alcopops - tighter regulation on advertising and sales - illustrates the restrictive mood which grips society today.

One idea promoted by the Portman Group is to increase the use of 'proof of age' cards, a 'national, free and voluntary' scheme which is as official as a passport, and sounds like getting young people used to ID cards by the back door. Some regulation has already taken place. Last November Bass were forced to change a laughing fruit logo on Hooper's Hooch into a serious, 'adult' fruit. A couple of months later, the Portman Group demanded that 'generic soft drink words' like 'lemonade' and 'cola' were removed from the labels. In September 1996, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against an advert for the flavoured cider Diamond Zest because it showed people under the age of 25 engaged in 'anti-social and irresponsible behaviour' (sitting in shopping trolleys and laughing).

These restrictions may seem inconsequential to those of us who are not underage drinkers, alcopops drinkers, advertisers, or alcopops executives. But the 'ban alcopops' discussion is based on an assumption which should concern us all: that, in the name of 'looking after children', the whole of society should be treated like naughty adolescents. Nobody is allowed to see an advert if those on high decide it is too 'irresponsible'. Everybody is told to set an example to the young through 'safe and responsible drinking'. Anybody suggesting that the point of drinking is to escape from being 'safe and responsible' for a while and to have a good time is met with the icy stares of New Labour's multi-agencies, who preach the immorality of the habits we are teaching our children.

Rowena Marsden, 18, is undergoing counselling to reduce her drinking from 100 units per week. On Channel 4's alcopops documentary, she was quizzed as to why she rejects her counsellor's advice that she should give up completely. Shrugging her shoulders, she retorted 'I'd rather die enjoying myself, you know what I mean?'. For the makers of Health Alert, Rowena was a typical example of the problem society is dealing with. For me, it was just a shame that the only person expressing any spirit of liberty had to be a sad near-alcoholic. When having a good time becomes a 'bad habit', it is almost enough to make you want to hit the fizzy stuff.

Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997

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