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
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.’
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
WKD (Beverage Brands)
Moo (Specialty Brands)
Raw Passion (Welsh Distillers)
Wild Brew (Whitbread).