Bingeing retreats in favour of treats
25 April, 2012
The government’s scare stories on alcohol bear little resemblance to what is actually happening in the pub, where the interesting story is not ‘over-indulgence’ but ‘self-indulgence’, says David Martin
Britain has an alcohol problem—the problem being that alcohol facts are getting lost in the anti-alcohol rhetoric.
Two recent data releases show that consumption of alcohol per head is in continuing decline, and at a surprisingly sharp rate.
The British Beer & Pub Association reported a 2.2% decline in per capita consumption in 2011: the fifth year out of the past seven in which consumption per head has declined, since the recent peak in 2004. Cumulatively the 2011 figure is 13% down on that peak. It also noted that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-old men who drink more than 21 units a week, the recommended safe maximum, has reduced from 32% in 2005 to 21% in 2010; for young women the proportion drinking more than 14 units a week, the recommended female safe maximum, has fallen from 28% to 18%.
Then we have the recently issued ONS General Lifestyle Survey report, focusing on smoking and drinking behaviour. This survey’s data are “one of the main sources for GB statistics on health determinants,” and “widely used by universities and health organisations” including the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield, whose work drives many of the government’s assumptions on the impact of alcohol pricing on consumption.
The report also showed a double- digit percentage decline in per capita alcohol consumption from 2005 to 2010, at a faster rate than reported in the BBPA release. Not only that, but the ONS survey says only 54% of people now claim to drink alcohol at least once a week. The proportion of men who claim to have drunk alcohol in the previous seven days dropped from 72% in 2005 to 67% in 2010. Among women the movement is from 57% in 2005 to 53% in 2010.
Yet despite this, the government continues to crank up the anti-alcohol
message, and its policy actions follow suit.
Meanwhile, in the past 20 years British society has been becoming progressively more “white collar” and better educated. The Trajectory Partnership, using British Household Panel Survey data, says the proportion of the working population in social grades AB has grown from 33% in 1991 to 43% today.
As a result, as reflected in Kantar Worldpanel’s Alcovision survey, in the past ten years the proportion of on-trade occasions coming from social grades ABC1 has grown from 46 to 54% of the total, wholly driven by the AB groups.
Pubs and bars have become a white-collar market and the trend is irreversible. With steadily higher on-trade prices, plus an increasingly discerning consumer, we should hardly be surprised that the overall trend in drink consumption is therefore “less but better”.
To take just one example, at Peach Report we have been talking up the prospects of “craft” beer for some time, and it is now borne out in the increasing roll-out of specialist bars in the major cities, from Brewdog, Draft House and other independents. According to CGA, world and speciality lagers have grown to account for a third of premium lager. The agency calls it “one of the hottest growth areas in the beer sector”.
Clearly, not all consumers can afford to trade up, but the majority may be starting to realise what seasoned wine drinkers have known for years: spend a little more and the incremental quality gain is significant.
This becomes more likely as on-trade visit occasions move towards “small indulgences” rather than habitual and unconsidered routine. It plays to a “treat without guilt” theme that the Trajectory Partnership has identified as a major consumer motivation. It is an antidote to hard times, a liquid version of the “lipstick effect”.
Our social networks will be accelerating these consumption changes. In an article on behavioural economics in the Financial Times in 2010, Paul Ormerod of Volterra Consulting reminded us that “many social phenomena can be explained by people simply copying the behaviour of others.”
In other words, if your friends start to drink less but better, it is likely you will. Perhaps our politicians don’t have many friends?
David Martin is principal of Red Circle Insight.