Got 'em on milk and alcohol

If we don't act now, children face a future of problem drinking, says Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
It looks as though tobacco advertising, and sports sponsorship, is going to be extinguished. Few people are complaining about this. The argument against advertising cigarettes, in whatever way, is that it encourages children to seek them out; once started, it is argued, they become hooked. No one pretends that children start by smoking pipes, or cigars. Too fuddy-duddy an image, too bitter a taste. Cigarettes are cool. Adverts don't discourage that thinking.

But having dealt with tobacco companies, what will the Government, with all its focus on education, the health service and the behaviour of children, do about another emerging national health threat - the sweet, alcoholic drinks known as alcopops?

For years the alcohol industry has been hiding behind the imposing bulk of the tobacco industry when the brickbats about health and social impact have been hurled around. Smoking kills! Actually, so does alcohol, though far more slowly (except when it's through drink-driving casualties). Smoking harms others! So does alcohol, as any visit to a casualty ward on a Friday night or a women's refuge will quickly show. But in the West, we have grown used to having alcohol in the adult world; American attempts at prohibition in the 1920s demonstrated how futile it is to try to take it away. We even find it a useful drug, socially - how many love affairs or business deals would never have got started without drinks to oil the wheels of life?

One of the first things the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, did on taking office was to order a review into the sale of alcopops and a ministerial group, led by the Home Office minister George Howarth, held its first meeting last Friday. A strongly worded statement was issued following the meeting, which described manufacturers and retailers as "cynical" and said that the Government was "determined to end the promotion of alcopops to under-18s". The statement added: "We will be holding urgent talks with representatives from the drinks industry and will be demanding swift action." Trade associations and alcohol lobby groups have welcomed the Government's tough stance.

The danger of alcopops is that they start young people drinking at an age which harms the brain, before they are old enough to make an adult decision on whether to do it. What is surprising is how quickly the trouble has arisen. The first "alcoholic soft drinks" were introduced here less than two years ago. The first was in June 1995, when the Hooper's Hooch brand, with an alcohol content of 4.7 per cent, was launched by Bass Breweries. The idea was imported from Australia, where they had stormed the drinks market.

At the time, Ian Morris, Bass's director of communications, said: "The brand is marketed at adult consumers of alcohol over the age of 18 and our initial market research was conducted in the adult market. It does not look like or taste like the lemonade drunk by children." The following month the cider makers Merrydown launched Two Dogs, also with a 4.7 per cent content. In November Sainsbury's launched its own brand, Piranha, with a 4.3 per cent content, comparable to most pub beers, and stronger than many American beers.

By January 1996, a new brand was being launched every month, and Hooper's Hooch was selling 2.5 million cans each week. That is a marketing explosion. In February 1996, a 5.3 per cent proof range - stronger than most pub beers - was launched by Whitbread. This April, an Oxfordshire company, En-Tout-Caisse, launched a 5 per cent proof "alcoholic milk" (though the company prefers to call it "flavoured cream liqueur") called Moo. This year, the total market for these drinks is expected to be pounds 400m. It's only a tiny percentage of the billions of pounds spent annually on beers, wines and spirits but, significantly, it has expanded the market slightly, and captured market share from ciders - traditionally the preferred drink for young drinkers (it's cheap and very intoxicating).

However, Tom Bettle, commercial director of En-Tout-Caisse, insists his company's alcoholic milk - sorry, flavoured cream liqueur - is not aimed at children, and that if children are buying it, it is the fault of the off-licences, supermarkets and pubs, not the brewers. "Children will try to get their hands on whatever they can," he says. "We try to make sure that it has the proper brand position, behind the counter or on the top shelf or in a fridge only with other alcoholic drinks." But why sell it at all? Other alcoholic cream liqueurs (such as Bailey's Irish Cream or Tia Maria) are far stronger - about 15 per cent proof - and correspondingly expensive, beyond the pockets of children. Why launch a cheaper, much sweeter one which resembles a drink children are encouraged to consume?

Research carried out in 1995 - before alcopops had come to children's attention - into the appeal to children of designer drinks, suggests that the key attraction of drinks such as fortified flavoured wines and extra- strong ciders was their sweetness. Anne-Marie Mackintosh, a researcher at Strathclyde University's Centre for Social Marketing, who helped carry out the survey, commented, "It wasn't advertising that drew children to it, but the product itself ... They want something sweet."

"Cocktails and cream-based cocktails have been around for decades," Tom Bettle argues. "We've just put them in a convenient single-serving packet. Look, we agree there needs to be an urgent review of alcopops. There are irresponsible people selling them."

Certainly the retail outlets are a problem. A survey of 700 teenagers aged 14-17 recently showed that 94 per cent drink alcohol every week, and 79 per cent of them buy it from off-licences and supermarkets; you can see that it's not going to be long before children are drinking alcoholic milk along with alcopops.

The question remains, however, of quite how the problem of alcopops should be handled. The industry's self-regulation (which has led to the redesign of a number of proposed alcopops labels) only works to an extent. The Government's tough talking on alcopops may go some way to preventing further unwelcome innovations from the brewers. But will it be enough without legislation? It's easy to imagine a simple system which tries to ensure that the less alcohol something has, the less sweet it is: a sweetness-alcohol index would be comparatively easy for chemists to devise. It would hit alcopops, forcing them either to lower the sweetness (and so attractiveness to children) or raise the alcohol content (and so the price). It just might work.

Or should we be readying ourselves for the arrival of alcoholic ice creams this summer?

What future for a nation of nipple tipplers?

Alcoholic flavoured milk is nipple tipple - obviously designed to entice junior taste buds, writes Yvonne Roberts. It is sly and seductive, above all because it invents a ritual of drinking entirely for the very young. Welcome to the infant world of boozers that's frighteningly all their own.

In common-sense countries, such as Italy and France, young people are invited into the land of the adult drinker with a mini glass of wine. Here, at some point, most children will drain the dregs at a grown-ups' party or experiment with whatever bottle happens to be lying around at home. It's a ritual that reminds a child, once the thrill of the forbidden has lost its pull, that unadorned adult alcohol is a taste to grow into. But now? The cocktail hour has become pre-puberty time. Imagine if the tobacco industry were permitted to produce strawberry-flavoured fags? Imagine if peppermint sucks of nicotine were available among the Jellytots and pick 'n' mix?

Of course, any enterprising 13 year old can stick a slug of vodka in a chocolate milk shake but it's a clear step that has to be taken. And, if it's frequently repeated, then it isn't yet quite the norm among his or her peers.

An entirely different message is conveyed when the everyday food of the under-fives is easily available, "hotted up", packaged and promoted as pocket-money fodder. That message is: drinking and childhood? Of course, it's cool for them to go together.

Prohibition won't work; restrictions on advertising and promotion, as the tobacco companies now face, might. If we do nothing, we'll be facing a time, highly profitable to the booze industry - when we have the weekly number of alcohol units established not just for men and women - but for children, too.