If alarm bells aren't ringing very loudly within drinks brands right now, they should be -- and that noise is only going to be get louder and louder. No wonder AB InBev is making such a huge play today of its commitment to switch drinkers to low and non-alcohol beer as it reiterated publicly its commitment to tackling the problems associated with drinking by 2015. It is here, however, where brewers should be getting seriously excited. People who are concerned by new guidance will be calling out for drinks that let them enjoy the taste of beer with less of a risk to their health.
To fully appreciate where we're going, let's look at it another way. We've all laughed at cigarette ads of old, the type which Don Draper gets in trouble for opposing in Mad Men. Despite what they claim, the Baby Boomers knew inhaling smoke was not as good for their lungs or spirit, as post-war billboards would have them believe. So they eventually went from denial to a realisation that carrying on was going to lead to serious cardio or cancer health issues. Just as Gen X found their parents' attitude to smoking puzzling, when it was clearly so bad for you, the same will apply to us X'ers when Gen Y, or the Millennials, evaluate our relationship with the bottle.
Just thirty years ago, the official advice on alcohol was that a man could have up to 56 drinks a week and a woman half that amount. The alcohol units we quote today came about twenty yeas ago with men allowed three to four per day and women two to three, as long as two days of abstinence per week were observed. Yesterday that limit was reduced to 14 a week for both men and women -- that's seven pints of average-strength beer or seven glasses of wine per day. These come with recommendations that the existing daily limit isn't surpassed and that "dry" days are interspersed throughout the week. There is to be no banking of units either, just three pints a day is now labelled "binge" drinking.
If there's one thing to be said for the new limits, at least the sexism of old is gone and there's no longer this old assumption that the male body can somehow cope with more alcohol than a woman's. Nevertheless, there is a lot of condemnation of the "nanny state" in the national press today from exactly the same people who would accuse the government of failing the nation if it did not pass on doctors' latest advice on the links between alcohol consumption and cancer risk.
It's with this use of the word "cancer" that we will probably see a huge public shift of attitude. We have all known that booze makes us sluggish and put on weight and can cause liver damage, but the elevated cancer risk is likely to be a new factor for most people. So, it doesn't really matter too much what commentators and politicians say about the new guidelines -- the court of public opinion will have the final say. The way it's going, in my opinion, is the exact same reason why AB InBev and others will begin actively promoting healthier beer choices. Brewers have seen the way we are changing and they are reacting. It's the shocked bloggers and politicians who are behind the curve on this one.
This does not need to be a nightmare for the drinks companies nor their agencies. The big brands have no love of problem drinkers who give their industry a bad name. So rather than concentrate on strong lagers, the shift to lower or non-alcoholic beer represents a massive opportunity they can exploit. I bet you that just as Becks has a 'Vier' brand, to represent is is only 4% ABV -- Vier is German for four -- there will be a "Two" or "One" brand out there from a beer maker pretty soon, either to represent the Alcohol By Volume or how many units it contains. I reckon that non alcohol beer -- if it could be made to actually taste like beer and not a stew of chemicals -- could find traction among designated drivers and people at home on a dry day, just as lower alcohol varieties, if they taste good, could easily be swapped out for higher versions. Brewers have big challenge and a massive opportunity on their hands.
I don't think it will be such good news for the wine industry. Unless they can produce lower-alcohol versions, sales are bound to slip as middle-class couples break the habit of a nightly bottle with dinner to mark the end of the working day. In fact, it's for this very reason that my wife and I are dry in January. We're a good case to consider. A couple of years ago I laughed at friends who signed up for Dry January, and last year I wondered if it was a good idea. This year, I'm fully on board and so are several friends who would have avoided the annual parsimony like myself just a year or two ago. The way public opinion is going is very clear and it will last longer than today's accusations of nanny state pampering in the press.