Special report: Super-strength lager 'causing more harm than crack or heroin'

A single can contains more alcohol than the recommended daily maximum. The companies behind them claim they are committed to responsible drinking, yet are still content to make a fortune...

Martin Hickman
Monday 08 October 2012 10:52 BST

Walk into almost any off-licence and supermarket and you will find cans of Special Brew and Tennent's Super. Their appeal to Britain's teenagers and tramps is simple: cheap, ultra-strong alcohol.

But they are becoming less appealing to the politicians, health workers and police who have to clean up the mess created in their wake.

Last month police and health workers in Ipswich persuaded two supermarket groups to ban the sale of super-strength lagers and ciders locally. The Coalition has raised tax on beer above 7.5 per cent and there are plans to introduce a minimum price of 40p per unit to raise the cost of ultra-cheap beer, cider, gins and vodkas.

With 9 per cent alcohol, super-strength lagers resemble home-brewed hooch in their crudeness and potency. And they are causing more damage to vulnerable people than heroin or crack cocaine, according to a leading homeless charity. Thames Reach's chief executive Jeremy Swain told The Independent: "We are not talking about people dying at 68 or 69. We are talking about people dying in their late 30s.

"The fact that alcohol is half the price it was in the 1980s is causing the problem. You can buy a can of super-strength lager for just over £1. It's a legal drug, but it's the most damaging."

Asked about the claim that high-strength beers and ciders caused more damage than illegal drugs, Sir Ian Gilmore, a spokesman on alcohol issues for the Royal College of Physicians, said: "Because the number of people using alcohol is so much higher, the harm is likely to be much more." So who is behind these drinks so disliked by alcohol charities and ministers determined to cut the estimated £21bn annual cost of excessive drinking?

The answer is some of the biggest brewers in the world. Super-strength lagers are, in some ways, the dirty secret of the global drinks industry.

Sales figures show that the Danish drinks giant Carlsberg – which is publicly committed to "responsible drinking" – makes two of the top-three best-selling high-strength lagers. It has long owned Special Brew, the market leader, and took over Skol Super a few years ago.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's biggest brewer, kept hold of the second-most popular, Tennent's Super, when it sold Scotland's Tennent's to the Magners owner C&C. Together, Carlsberg and InBev have UK retail sales of £104m from the three lagers.

But they make little or no mention of them in their marketing. On its British website, for instance, InBev extols the craft and taste of Stella Artois, but keeps quiet its role in producing the equivalent of 20 million 440ml cans of Tennent's Super for Britain.

Carlsberg's website pictures only a small bottle of Special Brew, describing it as a "full-bodied" strong beer "with cognac notes and a distinct bitterness". Carlsberg introduced Special Brew in 1950 to commemorate Sir Winston Churchill's visit to Copenhagen, but no longer sells it in its native Denmark.

Concerned at their contribution to problem drinking, the Coalition raised tax on super-strength lagers above 7.5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) at the end of last year, making the duty on a pack of four cans £1. Justine Greening, then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, said the move was aimed at tackling "problem drinking directly, rather than penalising the overwhelming majority of responsible drinkers".

Tesco and Sainsbury's sell four cans of Special Brew or Tennent's Super for £7.09, making them and bottles of white cider the cheapest route to oblivion.

Concerned at the apparent role in public disorder of super-strength drinks, Suffolk Police, with the backing of the local health authority and councils, announced that Tesco and the Co-operative in Ipswich had agreed to stop selling beer and cider above 6.5 per cent ABV. They hope others will follow: a local off-licence was selling a 500ml can of 9 per cent lager for £1.30 and a 7.5 per cent can of cider for 99p – which Andrew Mason, the local police commander, described as "pocket money".

The Government's intention of introducing a 40p minimum price per unit of alcohol may encounter opposition in Brussels from countries with brewers exporting to Britain.

Perhaps hit by higher duty, sales of super-strength lager over 7.5 per cent, fell by 9 per cent in volume and 7.6 per cent in value in the year to 15 September, according to the market research firm Nielsen. But they still sold a lot: Special Brew 11.7 million litres, Tennent's Super 8.9 million litres and Skol Super 5.4 million litres. Combined sales of the three were equivalent to 45 million pints.

The figures may explain why AB InBev and Carlsberg, respectively the biggest and fourth-biggest brewers in the world, continue to make them.

Not all drinks firms take the same approach. Two years ago, Heineken, the third-largest global brewer, first diluted and then halted production of 8.5 per cent White Lightning, saying that the cider "continued to attract negative headlines and is still associated with a park-bench mentality".

AB InBev and Carlsberg promote the charity Drinkaware, whose website highlights the official advice that regularly drinking more than three to four units of alcohol a day can cause health problems. A 440ml can of Special Brew or Tennent's Super is 4.5 units, meaning that consuming one of the companies' products exceeds safe-drinking guidelines. How do they square their commitment to responsible drinking and their continued brewing of super-strength lagers?

Carlsberg UK said: "Our role as a drinks producer is to provide choice, education and information to allow consumers to make an informed personal choice. It [Special Brew] clearly states the number of units and responsible-drinking messages on the packaging, along with the message that it is best shared." AB InBev said: "Our products are brewed to be enjoyed responsibly and we would never condone misuse of our products.... We believe that tackling alcohol misuse is much more complicated than targeting individual products or categories."

Siobhan McCann, head of campaigns at Drinkaware, which is funded by the alcohol industry, said: "There is a variety of alcoholic drinks on the market so it's important consumers are able to make educated and informed choices about the drinks they choose."

Others are less reticent. At Thames Reach, Jeremy Swain said: "It's ludicrous to have a can of super-strength lager with 4.5 units when the Government is saying that men should drink no more than four units a day."

Emily Robinson, campaigns director at Alcohol Concern, said: "It's very easy for the drinks companies to pay lip service to responsible drinking but we've seen very little action." She called for a 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol. That would make a single can of Special Brew £2.25.

Case study: 'The only people who drink it are problem drinkers'

Dennis Rogers, 53, from south London, is a reformed alcoholic

When I was homeless, I was drinking 15 cans of Tennent's Super a day – at least. If I didn't have a can to wake up to, I wouldn't be able to walk. I would have to crawl to my off-licence and I would get a crate. They would quite happily hand it over to me. They would hold on to my benefit book for me and come down to the office to cash it in with me. At that time, I was quite prepared to drink myself to death – I was in a dark tunnel and I couldn't see any way out of it.

I've never seen anyone drink a super-strength lager socially. The manufacturers won't admit it, but the only people who would drink it are people who have a problem with alcohol. The alcohol content shouldn't be that high.

I feel like a hypocrite because I used to drink it, but I think now that it is poison – it is canned brain damage. The money the manufacturers must be making out of this is unbelievable.

In 2003, I was stabbed and found myself in intensive care. I was registered to rehab and managed to turn myself around. I work for the charity Thames Reach. We go round to hospitals advising on health issues for homeless people. We take people to hospital appointments and try and empower them to make decisions. It is hard. Alcohol is a killer: a good friend of mine died only this week. I have seen as many 300 people I know die from drink over the years. The youngest was 32.

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