MARKETING FOCUS: Alcopops the demon drink? - It’s the latest moral panic but what is the evidence behind the anti-alcopop hype? James Curtis looks at how public fears may be based on misconceptions about teen drinking

Not so long ago it was Ecstasy and the rave scene. Now it’s alcopops - the moral majority’s latest bete noir. Alcopops are being blamed for everything, prompting calls for them to be heavily regulated or even banned.

Not so long ago it was Ecstasy and the rave scene. Now it’s

alcopops - the moral majority’s latest bete noir. Alcopops are being

blamed for everything, prompting calls for them to be heavily regulated

or even banned.

Church leaders, politicians, pressure groups and the media have all

jumped on the anti-alcopops bandwagon, falling over each other to accuse

the drinks industry of deliberately targeting juvenile drinkers and of

causing an increase in underage drunkenness.

With their colourful packaging, wacky names and sickly-sweet flavouring,

the first accusation carries weight, and some manufacturers have been

persuaded to take a more responsible approach.

Only last week, five alcopops manufacturers voluntarily axed their

brands after industry watchdog The Portman Group upheld complaints that

they were targeting underage drinkers (see box). Alcoholic lemonade Two

Dogs was recently redesigned to target older drinkers and Bass dropped

the grinning cartoon lemon from the label of market leader Hooch.

But the most important charge - and the factor which should inform any

debate on the future of alcopops - is supported by very little


Academics studying children’s drinking habits claim that while there is

an increase in underage drinking, this cannot be attributed to


There is even evidence to suggest that the packaging is not as

influential as many think.

Dr Douglas Cameron, senior lecturer in substance misuse at Leicester

University, says: ’This is prohibition by the back door. Alcopops are

being demonised but very few people have anything to really support

their opinions.’

Cameron says alcopops are nothing more than a new tool in the age-old

process of learning to drink.

’They are a transitional drug which young drinkers use for a while until

they get a hang of it and then they move onto proper drinks; it’s part

of the learning process,’ he says.

’People don’t seem to be able to handle the fact that at the age of

seven you are abstinent and at 18 you are a sophisticated drinker.

Alcopops are a reasonable stage in this process.

’It is time we started a major debate about learning to drink and youth

drinking. We need to blow away the myths and recognise that this

learning process is going on. In the past two years, alcopops have

become the most popular drink among 14- to 16-year-olds. But they are

not using them to get pissed; they still use vodka for that.’

Academic advice

The first step in initiating this debate was taken two weeks ago when Dr

Cameron and the Addictions Forum helped organise a debate on the future

of alcopops at Leicester University.

New research into alcopops consumption, presented by Alasdair Forsyth, a

researcher into drugs misuse at Glasgow University, revealed a

perplexing pattern for alcopops opponents to decipher (see box).

His survey of 1308 14- to 15-year-olds in Dundee shows that while more

alcopops are being drunk and there is more underage drunkenness, there

is no evidence to suggest alcopops are to blame. Alcopops are the least

likely drink to get kids drunk. Vodka and cider remain the most


The popularity of alcopops in this age group is undeniable, with 20% of

schoolchildren in the study drinking them. Beer is the next most popular

drink, at 17%.

In 1994, 82% of the Dundee teenagers said they drank alcohol while 60%

had recently been drunk. This year those figures have risen to 88% and


However, when asked what they most recently got drunk on, 43% say

alcopops, 80% say vodka and 82% say white cider.

Forsyth says: ’The figures are out of step with the weight of popular

arguments. It would make life a lot easier if we could blame alcopops

for making the problem worse, but we can’t.’

Forsyth says the findings can be attributed to a very simple dynamic -


’What is the attraction of alcopops when you can get six times more

alcohol for less money with white cider? Kids tend to go for what’s

cheap and easy to get. Not only are alcopops expensive, but shopkeepers

are on the lookout for kids buying them, so they’re not the easiest to

get hold of.’

When you stack up the buying options, you can see his point. At pounds

1.10, a 33cl bottle of 4.7% ABV Hooch is 10p more than a litre of White

Star cider, at 7.5% ABV. For a youngster wanting to get drunk fast, it’s

a no-brainer.

It is also a fact that undermines the widely held theory that the

colourful and gimmicky packaging and high-profile advertising of many

alcopops makes them more appealing to young drinkers.

In an earlier study among Scottish schoolchildren (’Alcopops Supernova’,

published this year in the International Journal of Health Education),

Forsyth argues that the cheap, strong alcoholic drinks most used by

youngsters do not benefit from the same marketing investment as


He points out that brands like the fruit wine Mad Dog 20/20 have

word-of-mouth reputations, while White Star and other cheap white ciders

come in large, anonymous plastic bottles. The heavily advertised

market-leading white cider Diamond White was hardly ever named by

children in the study; neither were brands like Shocker

(lightbulb-shaped) and TNT (shaped like a stick of dynamite).

The study concludes: ’Value for money is more attractive to underage

drinkers than packaging. Given (their) limited funds and access to

alcohol, it is perhaps inevitable that he or she will be attracted to

the seldom-advertised, gimmick-free product.’

If youngsters are going to use evil-tasting and mind-blowingly strong

ciders in their drinking ’learning process’, then perhaps alcopops are a

lesser evil. ’The argument is that it is better to start with alcopops

than drinking white cider with the big boys behind the shops,’ says


Many parents seem to share this view. An alarming 50% of children who

last drank alcopops told Forsyth’s team that they had been supplied by a

family member.

Understandably, alcohol help groups are concerned to keep the pressure

up on alcopops and challenge the argument that they are an acceptable

stage in the process of learning to drink.

Mary Ann McKibben, assistant director of Alcohol Concern, told the

Addictions Forum conference: ’The potential role of alcopops as ’gateway

drinks’ is a major concern given that children are drinking at an

earlier age.

In the past, they may have been put off by the taste of lager and cider,

but alcopops slip down far too easily.’

She argues that children are starting to drink earlier and that alcopops

are helping them move on to ciders, lagers and spirits much sooner than

they may do otherwise.

Research by the Scottish Council on Alcohol (SCA) backs this up. A

survey of 340 Scottish 15- to 17-year-olds showed that many children of

this age felt they had already grown out of drinking alcopops and were

ready to move on to cider, lager and vodka. Ann Furst, spokesperson for

the SCA, says: ’They’re a sophisticated lot and thought alcopops were a

bit childish.’

The SCA is so concerned about the starting age for drinking that for its

next survey it wants to talk to 12- to 13-year-olds.

The conclusion arising from this latest thinking on the alcopops issue

is loud and clear: alcopops should not be singled out for attack. The

real problem is the increase in underage drinking, the increasing levels

of drunkenness in young people and the earlier age at which they


Diverted debate

Furst says she is ’very concerned’ about the hype surrounding


’It has diverted the debate away from the real issue of underage

drinking,’ she says. ’The problem we need to tackle is not that they

drink but that they drink more.’

McKibben agrees that the debate needs to be widened and wonders whether

it has concentrated too much on the products and producers and not

enough on the drinkers.

’We have never claimed alcopops are the whole story. Before they came

along we were worried about the number of 11- to 15-year-olds drinking,

but this new sector has made the situation worse,’ she says.

Whatever the effects of alcopops on teen drinking, improved regulation

is clearly necessary and many wonder if The Portman Group is up to the


Despite its most recent tough rulings and the swift responses by

offending manufacturers, Alcohol Concern is not satisfied with The

Portman Group’s effectiveness.

McKibben wants to see an independent regulatory body in which bodies

like Alcohol Concern can be involved. ’We want pre-vetting, licensing of

products before they are launched and meaningful sanctions. That some

retailers have withdrawn them (The Co-op and Iceland) reflects their

lack of faith in the voluntary code.’

Dr Cameron believes the debate about increased regulation is not the

central issue. He says the industry needs to face up to who is drinking

its products.’At the moment, we have a situation of collusive lying

where nobody dare admit the truth. Self-regulation has not worked but it

is not meant to. The Portman Group is a publicly acceptable fall guy.

That’s capitalism.’

The future for alcopops is undoubtedly going to be tougher. Sales in

this pounds 350m sector are slowing and only the strongest brands are

managing to get shelf space at the big multiples. Their future depends

on more responsible, honest marketing.

The alcopops debate has lifted the lid on increased underage drinking,

but it should not be allowed to hog the limelight.

Blaming the increase in juvenile drinking on one alcoholic product is

simplistic and naive, especially when there is little evidence to

suggest that they are making the problem any worse.

Regulator gets tough

The Portman Group’s revised code, released this week, features tough new

measures to stop manufacturers targeting underage drinkers. It will:

- Alert retailers of products which contravene the code, requesting that

they de-list them in a specified time frame.

- Report non-complying retailers to the alcohol licencing


- Ask drinks manufacturers to consult The Portman Group prior to launch

for advice on packaging and targeting.

- Ask retailers to require proof that manufacturers have been to The

Portman Group for advice before launch.

Five brands have been withdrawn following complaints to The Portman

Group. They are:

Barking Frog (Allied Domecq)

Space Doubt (Split Drinks Company)

WKD Red (Beverage Brands)

Vixen (Cott Europe)

Sainsbury’s own-label alco-lemonade

Other companies have agreed to rename or repackage their brands. They


Bite (Asda)

Red (Bass)

WKD (Beverage Brands)

Moo (Specialty Brands)

Raw Passion (Welsh Distillers)

Wild Brew (Whitbread).

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