Editor-At-Large: Tesco – every little bit of brand promotion helps

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The Independent Online

Sir Terry Leahy says he wants the government to consider setting minimum prices for booze, and supports a ban on selling alcohol at less than the cost price. Why has our biggest retailer suddenly been stricken with a social conscience? Writing in the Telegraph, Sir Terry can't resist a dig at politicians, claiming that although they ask our opinions and seek our votes once every five years, customer consultation is a constant process at Tesco. Yes, but another continual process at the retailer is the maximisation of profits, alongside brand awareness. A constant drip of daily hype from all the supermarkets underlines this battle for sales in a recession. Earlier last week, Asda reported the first quarterly sales drop for four years, following a pattern already established at Morrisons and hinted at by Sainsbury. Next day, it announced it had "taken the lead" in selling cancer drugs without making a profit. Iressa, a drug for lung cancer, for example, will cost £2,167.71 at Asda, compared with £3,251.57 at Boots. Selling much-needed drugs at a discount is to be applauded, but the timing does make one cynical.

Which brings me back to Sir Terry and minimum pricing. Only a week ago Tesco was criticised for importing asparagus from Peru at the peak of the British growing season, making a mockery of their claim to back British suppliers and get us eating local produce. I can imagine the scene at Tesco HQ – the PR team must have decided a big initiative was needed to get dreary (elected) politicians off the front pages and to reinforce the notion that the (unelected) bosses of Tesco have our best interests at heart. Throughout the rise of drink-related crime Tesco has been slow to stop promoting cheap booze.

As the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a complete review of the Licensing Act, retailers might have sensed that change is in the air. For all its tough talk, the last government was reluctant to take on the drinks industry and impose minimum pricing, a ban on sponsorship, or repeal the extended licensing laws. In spite of huge pressure from the British Medical Association, the Chief Medical Officer, the Police Federation and countless other interested parties with plenty of expert knowledge in the field of alcohol abuse, Gordon Brown and Alan Johnson did nothing.

Now, Tesco has conducted a customer survey and (no surprises) found that 70 per cent think excessive drinking is one of the country's biggest problems, and 61 per cent are concerned about the anti-social behaviour that results from it. Over half think cheap booze is to blame. As a result, Sir Terry has decreed that Tesco will be placing the information about the units of alcohol in drinks on the front of packaging, not the back, and the retailer will expand its work with the charity Alcohol Concern, to create new ways of dealing with excessive consumption in London.

All very admirable. But let's consider a few facts. Is drinking on the increase? Not really, according to Nigel Hawkes of Straight Statistics. The number of men who say they drink more than eight units one day a week has actually gone down. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of men who drink more than 50 units over a week dropped by 2 per cent. In fact, the statistics are somewhat misleading because the way that units are computed was changed. Binge drinking among 16 to 24-year-old women peaked in 1998 at 42 per cent and had fallen to 35 per cent in 2006. The volume of alcohol sold has increased, but not dramatically. What has increased – by 30 per cent – is the number of women involved in drink-related crimes over the past two years, and the number of deaths where alcohol was a factor – which doubled between 1992 and 1998. We don't drink that much more – but behaving badly when we drink has become commonplace.

Minimum pricing won't change behaviour – that requires education at primary-school level. It will put Sir Terry's smaller competitors out of business, while he has plenty of other enticements to get us into Tesco. As for labelling – three years ago, the drinks industry agreed labels would carry five key messages, including a warning. As the guidelines were voluntary, just 15 per cent of drinks sold currently comply. So it's hard to see how Tesco can enforce such a directive. Social policy is best left to our elected leaders, not supermarket bosses, no matter how well-meaning.

Games shame: Olympic mascots are a national disgrace

According to a study conducted by Glasgow University, published in the British Medical Journal, there is "no evidence" that the 2012 Olympics will result in substantial long-term benefits. Researchers looked at the health and socio-economic impact of big sporting events, and found little conclusive evidence that staging them improved our lives in any meaningful way. As the costs of the 2012 Games in London exceed budget, organisers are talking up how it will enrich our lives and rejuvenate run-down areas, but there's no real evidence either that they will result in more children participating in sport. The event is all about generating income – the people who will certainly benefit are companies producing merchandise, which is why those repulsive mascots were proudly unveiled last week. This country produces the best designers in the world – from Richard Rogers to Tom Dixon and James Dyson. We've come up with Concorde, the Hovercraft and countless ground-breaking inventions. From Marc Quinn to Grayson Perry to Damien Hirst, our contemporary artists are world class. Wenlock and Mandeville are the style equivalent of Clive Sinclair's G5. An unsightly embarrassment. Don't tell me 10-year-olds relate to them; 10-year-olds would have designed something better.

Don't blame Watson: she's just the boss

Jenny Watson was appointed to run the Electoral Commission on a salary of more than £100,000, presiding over a budget of £25m and 150 staff. In spite of planning for an election for years, the system disintegrated into chaos in polling stations up and down the country, with scenes reminiscent of a banana republic. When officials denied angry voters who had queued for hours the chance to vote, Miss Watson blamed everyone but herself. She has published a highly critical report and again the fault lies with other people – she accuses councils of bad planning and a shortage of staff. What happened to leadership? Telling us what went wrong and citing "inadequate planning and systems" just highlights that she didn't know what was going on in advance.

Magistrate's language problem

When two 16-year-old boys appeared in court charged with writing racist and sexually abusive graffiti, ripping up prayer books and damaging a valuable cross at Blackburn Cathedral, the magistrate who gave them fines and supervision orders was so enraged he described them as "absolute scum".

The clerk of the court said this use of language in a youth court was "inappropriate", one of the boys' mothers said she would be making an official complaint, and the magistrate was asked to stand down as chairman of the bench while an investigation is under way. Now, one of the boys' dads says the magistrate was "absolutely right" and backs him "100 per cent".

Even the police describe the offenders as stupid and uneducated. Isn't this political correctness gone mad?

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