Pub chain calls time on alcopops as more companies join ban

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The Independent Online
The bubble may be bursting on alco-pops. The sweet-tasting drinks which prompted public outrage by supposedly luring the young to alcohol were dealt another blow yesterday.

JD Wetherspoon, the fast-expanding chain of 194 pubs, announced it was banning all the drinks which revel in such names as Hooper's Hooch, Shott's Lemon Jag and Zanzibi Sling.

Since their introduction in Britain two years ago, there has been a host of critical stories. Unwitting parents packed the alcoholic drinks in lunch boxes. Stirling University banned them from the campus and even bars at the House of Commons have refused requests to stock them.

The Co-op and Iceland food stores have cleared the controversial beverages from their shelves. And in a mark of the cultural impact, the issue was even raised in a television soap Tinhead, a teenager in Brookside, was made to look a complete fool when he tried to impress the girls at the youth club with a few alcopops.

JD Wetherspoon embarked on a trial ban at its busiest pub, the Hamilton Hall, at Liverpool Street station in London two months ago. After customers proved happy to take an alternative tipple, it extended the ban yesterday.

The bad publicity the drinks have generated has prompted its decision more than any moral crusade. Chairman Tim Martin said: "We simply do not want to be associated with the controversy."

The chain sells 10-15,000 bottles a week. But Mr Martin said: "We have considered the situation carefully. Alcopops have had a lot of bad publicity and many people are concerned that they may be attractive to people too young to drink legally."

The decision was welcomed and condemned in equal measure. Andrew Chevis, of the Portman Group, the drinks' industry-funded watchdog, said the pub chain was missing the point. "We do not believe that for a company like JD Wetherspoon to ban alcopops will have a significant impact on alcohol misuse by young people."

Out of 200 children admitted to the Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool last year with drinking problems, only six followed consumption of alcopops. Mr Chevis said a Portman Group report later this month will highlight other drinks causing more problems, although he refused to name them.

Stuart Cain, spokesman for Bass who make Hooper's Hooch, which has 70 per cent of the market, questioned Wetherspoon's motivation in banning a drink which was popular with 20 to 30-year-olds. Around three million bottles and cans are sold each week. "Alcopops sit comfortably alongside beer, cider and shorts. They're not a fad and there's a need to stop demonising them," he said.

Yet Fiona McIntosh, editor of Company magazine for young wo-men in their twenties, said it was not simply under-age drinkers which were cause for concern. Young women were drinking too much and often failed to realise they were.

"Alcopops are quite clubby and fun. It's probably quite difficult to estimate how much you're putting away," she said.

Mark Bennett, of Alcohol Concern, said individual retailers should not be left to make such decisions. There was a need for an independent panel, not the Portman Group, to assess their acceptability. "The test of these drinks is their disproportionate appeal to people under the age of 16."

Alcopops came third behind cider and lager for under-age drinkers. That was considerable success for a new drink. It was also notable because research showed alcopops attracted some young people who admitted they would not otherwise be drinking alcohol at all.

But Mr Bennett said industry sources were muttering already that the appeal of the fizzy drinks was waning. "People approaching their 18th birthday want to be drinking something that is different from what the previous set were drinking. So we see a pattern of new types of alcohol products."

Like bottled beers with lime in the top and ice beers, alcopops will have a successor yet.