Magazine article Marketing

Alcopops the Demon Drink?

Magazine article Marketing

Alcopops the Demon Drink?

Article excerpt

It's the latest moral panic but what is the evidence behind the anti-alcopop hype? James Curtis looks at how public fears may be based on misconceptions about teen drinking

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 evidence.

Academics studying children's drinking habits claim that while there is an increase in underage drinking, this cannot be attributed to alcopops. 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 their opinions."

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."

Academic advice

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 titter remain the most likely.

The popularity of alcopops in this age gronp 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 68%.

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. …

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