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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 30th Nov 2012 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Alcohol Awareness Week, going back to the floor and the legality of minimum pricing
Authors: Paul Chase, Jo Drain and Kate Nicholls

Alcohol Awareness Week by Paul Chase

Alcohol Concern’s ‘Alcohol Awareness Week’ ran between the 19th and 25th November. Its theme was “It’s time to talk about drinking”. And it’s clear what kind of conversation Alcohol Concern wants us to have. Go on their campaign website and you can find such handy conversation starters as “Alcohol is the second biggest risk factor for cancer after smoking. How does that make you feel?” or “Around 200,000 people come to work with a hangover every day. Makes you think doesn’t it?” And then there is their invitation to us all to abstain from alcohol consumption in January! And, of course, they want us all to speak to our MPs and our local councillors and ask them if they support minimum unit pricing.

But perhaps it is time to have a different kind of conversation about alcohol; one that is not so relentlessly anti-alcohol, temperance and abstinence based. Imagine if we took what we know about motor cars and how they are used, and organised it into a selective scheme of knowledge that was limited to statistics about speeding, accidents, injuries and road-death, and theories about why people engage in “irresponsible driving”. Imagine we pushed that message to the point that any discussion about the positive effects of modern automobile travel became crowded out of the discussion. Indeed, even a mention of such positive effects came to be characterised as “driving-harm denial”. That’s the point we’ve got to in the alcohol debate.

What are missing are any reference to the positive functions and attitudes about alcohol in our society. If those things are missing from our attempts to educate the public, and particularly young people, and if the starting point for that education is that all drinking is bad, has exclusively hazardous consequences, makes you behave in ways that are uncontrollable, is normally a pre-cursor to disease and is something that young people should be warned against, this has consequences. The main consequence of this vision is that young people know of no alternative but excessive, drinking-to-get-drunk models of consumption. The problem-inflation and scare tactics of groups like Alcohol Concern serve only to reinforce that which they wish to counter.

Furthermore, when over 80 per cent of the young people who have received these messages then go on to drink alcohol, enjoy it and don’t contribute to accident or illness statistics, then the reality of their personal experience disconfirms the indoctrination of the health lobby, and they are unlikely to be influenced by sensible drinking messages that they should listen to.

What should people - and particularly young people – learn about drinking? In the United States researchers (Harburg, Gleiberman, Di Franceisco and Peele) created, as far back as 1994, a model of ‘sensible drinking’ and how that should be presented. They advocated that in place of messages that lead to a dysfunctional combination of behaviour and attitudes, a model of drinking regularly but moderately, drinking integrated with other healthy practices, and drinking motivated, accompanied by, and leading to further positive feelings should be presented. In their view, the following set of pleasurable practices and recommendations should be communicated to young people and others:

1. Alcohol is a legal beverage widely available in most societies.

2. Alcohol may be misused with serious negative consequences.

3. Alcohol is more often used in a mild and socially positive fashion.

4. Alcohol used in this fashion confers significant benefits, including health, quality of life, psychological and social benefits.

5. It is critical for the individual to develop skills to manage alcohol consumption.

6. Some groups/cultures use alcohol almost exclusively in a positive fashion, and this style of drinking should be valued and emulated (e.g., Mediterranean and Jewish culture).

7. Positive drinking involves regular, moderate consumption, often including people of both genders and all ages and usually entailing activities in addition to alcohol consumption, where the overall environment is pleasant – either relaxing or socially stimulating.

8. Drinking alcohol in moderation, like other healthful activities, both takes it form and produces the most benefit within an overall positive life structure and social environment, including group supports, other healthful habits, and a purposeful and engaged lifestyle.

The problem about the kind of “talk about drinking” that Alcohol Concern wants us to engage in is that it causes our schools and our politicians to become afraid of saying anything positive about alcohol, for fear of being accused of encouraging consumption. If we fear communicating such messages then we lose an opportunity for a significantly beneficial life involvement and actually increase the danger of problematic drinking.

The health lobby, and its related advocacy groups, seek to influence our society in the direction of proscribing alcohol use, or at least of becoming a society whose attitude to alcohol is extremely ambivalent – a society that tolerates drinking, but also fears and resents it. I favour the development of a drinking culture of prescriptive norms, whereby we accept and welcome alcohol, but socialise clear norms for its consumption.

For the anti-alcohol zealots of Alcohol Concern such an approach is tantamount to heresy. They prefer, in the words on their website, to “challenge people to give up alcohol for a month in January” in order to dramatise the barely hidden agenda that people shouldn’t drink at all. The fundamental contradiction of their position is that it isn’t possible to socialise people in sensible drinking norms, whilst seeking at the same time to de-normalise and pathologise normal, social drinking.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading on-trade alcohol policy commentator

Going back to the floor by Jo Drain

Many of you will have seen Undercover Boss in which company chiefs head back to the floor to discover good and bad lurking at the grass roots of their business. Unfortunately, there’s not a wig or make-up on the market that can disguise me when I decided it was time to head to the coalface and run our White Horse pub in Ramsden Heath, Essex. With the departure of our manager who was off to run his own business and the deputy following close behind, a perfect opportunity had arisen to take day-to-day control until our new manager took up his role. For several months we had supported minor deficiencies in this particular business whilst our manager had gone through a very tough health issue within his family. So could this new broom sweep cleaner? I guess I was setting myself up for a fall, expected to produce even more from a business already hitting the numbers through the first half of the year. My partner in life and business Steve Haslam assured me I could do better although he wasn’t going to give me an easy ride, reminding me of my weekly wage percentage, Christmas reporting and the Halloween party to organise. But, holding the purse strings, he found some capex spend to create a new family room complete with wireless headsets for the kids to watch movies.

The first thing was to create a management team to support me in my quest for perfection. Both Steve and I have always been advocates of promoting from within and decided to promote two junior members of our team at our Grand Central site in Basildon, Gemma and Eden. They had been showing great promise, so we decided this was a wonderful opportunity to appoint them as junior trainee managers. Another first class member of staff, Verity, was shipped in to support on a part time basis. My first move was to introduce table service to the bar. With the change of season and the weather closing in, this was a great opportunity to up our service levels, customer interaction, with the by-product, we hoped, of amazing tips for the bar staff. I also introduced a dessert for a £1 if people had a starter & main. It was another quick win as customers began to order across the menu. Specials Boards were reintroduced - and items were flying out as quickly as we could make them. The downside was staff casualties. A couple of staff just didn’t get the change of tempo, the new customer drive; they, quite frankly, had become too set in their ways. The proof, however, would be in the pudding, or sales in this case.

In the very first week we had a 20 per cent uplift in sales and a 200 per cent uplift in bar tips. I was delighted and for the staff that had embraced all the changes, the extra tips left them even more delighted. Week two saw a focus on the kitchen. Again there were the inevitable change of direction, tweaks and few harsh words. Quite quickly, the kitchen was firing on all cylinders. Presentation was improved, cleanliness was suddenly the buzz word and improved morale, based on rediscovered pride in the job, seemed to kick in quicker than an illegal Saturday night substance. Restaurant staff were reporting tips doubled from normal levels – a sure sign that we were on the right track. Interaction was proving the key and magic moments were now introduced, every staff member empowered to give as many magic moments as possible. Simple things: being there to push a chair in behind a customer, remembering their names, behaving in guest interaction like it was a special occasion even though they hadn’t announced it. Week three started with a little wine disruption (after a well-known supplier went into administration). Steve jumped in and got us ahead of the game to keep disruption at a minimum and sourced a new supplier offering a great deal (you can’t keep a good man down!).

Steve had another bombshell - he was introducing an ice skating rink to the garden. A meeting was scheduled for a couple of days later and before I knew it, the deal was done, the rink constructed within a week and another string had been added to the pub’s bow. 

With the White Horse’s staff running on the metaphorical equivalent of a case of Red Bull, sales continue to grow. Girl Power was starting to reign, my iPod a permanent fixture so the tunes reverberating around the bar even took on a fresh meaning in the new staff spirit that seemed to be growing day-by-day. By now, staff were backing every change 100 per cent and it was showing in each and every facet of the business. Christmas bookings (captured, sold and deposits paid) have taken us near to last year’s levels with weeks to spare. A quick e-Shot to our database announced my return and many old faces started to reappear. On the floor was where I started in this business and when I get the chance to return I’m always buzzing – it’s like turning the clock back. Juggling my headquarters administration that with that of general manager of The White Horse is tough going, though, largely because I’m starting to feel my four decades. Was it worth it? You bet it was. Our new manager lands Wednesday and I’m confident he can now hit the ground running – with lots of momentum behind him. Going back to the floor is also humbling - it reminds me of what a great team the company has, from pot wash to directors, everyone needing to pull together to make a difference. Nobody is more important than anyone else in the sense that everybody has to want to make a difference for customers to actually make a difference for customers. And the more general lesson? I’ve been reminded that sometimes galvanising change and maintaining standards can be left in abeyance for too long.
Jo Drain and her partner Steve Haslam run the award-wining six-strong TLC Inns. This article appears in the current edition of Propel Quarterly magazine

Minimum pricing & EU law by Kate Nicholls

If all had gone according to plan we might have been in a position to talk with some degree of certainty about whether minimum pricing will be introduced or whether it is dead in the water. As Paul Chase noted recently, however, instead we have the worst of all worlds, with a pivotal legal test case on ice due to procedural technicalities. The debate will resume in the new year but the legal matters under consideration are far from clear cut.

There is a lot of debate about whether a minimum price is compatible with EU law, and at face value there is some merit in this – everyone knows and can quote the fact that European law forbids restraints on trade. But EU law also takes a step by step approach and a case-by-case assessment: is there a real restraint on trade? what is its effect? can it be justified? Resale price maintenance and price fixing are seen as automatic restrictions and have been banned in a number of instances. 

But is a minimum price the same as price fixing? That is more than a semantic point and it is one which will keep lawyers on both sides busy. The fact that it is an obligation to abide by a minimum price and not a requirement to sell at a fixed price will be taken into account. Set at a relatively low floor, affecting few product lines argues against a fixing of price but it should certainly give governments on both sides of the border pause for thought on automatic indexation. More importantly, whilst EU Competition Law prohibits any restraint on trade this is by no means absolute. EU law looks at whether the effect is anti-competitive and it is possible for the EU and governments to exempt restrictions on competition from the general ban, where the effect is beneficial or the end justifies the means – that is why exclusive purchasing agreements are allowed. 

In Scotland, the proposal is to insert a minimum pricing clause into distribution agreements for the off trade only and for a fixed period of six years. Limiting the scope of the measure in this way – both duration and to only one supply chain – may help it escape an EU prohibition. There have also been arguments put forward that it will have a positive effect on competition as it will encourage investment in inter-brand competition and the provision of additional services. The third and final test is whether the ‘indispensible’ one – is the restraint on trade really necessary and proportionate. 

There is much EU case law which allows non-economic goals such as health and environmental protection as plausible arguments in support of exemption from EU Competition law. This is particularly so where they are subsumed in economic gains – so both governments have argued not only that a minimum price will save lives, but also that the reduction in harm to health will have positive consequences for the economy at large in terms of improved productivity, reduced sick leave, reduced crime and better hospital services. 

So, how the law is framed and drafted will be key to determining whether it is seen as a real restraint in trade in the first place. And secondly, the justification used to support it will need to be robust to demonstrate that it is the best and most effective way to deliver the health benefits. Both governments, however, rely heavily on the Sheffield Study – and for politicians it remains a compelling case. The disclosure a few weeks ago that some of the wildest claims made for lives saved have been exaggerated and mistakes made by Sheffield relate only to the Panorama programme on drinking and older people - not the general (lower) assumptions made about lives saved. But in a period when ministers have had egg on their face over inaccurate assumptions about railways, that evidence base will be re-scrutinised. 

In summary, the legality or otherwise of a law on minimum pricing remains far from clear cut. The assumption that a minimum price is automatically a restraint on trade and against EU Competition Law cannot be taken at face value and will almost certainly be subject to long and protracted legal debate. 
Kate Nicholls is the ALMR’s Strategic Affairs Director and has a postgraduate degree in EU Competition Law from Kings, London

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