Plain packaging and graphic warnings will ‘crush’ craft drinks, says gin master

Campaigners slam ‘sanctimonious’ health experts after call for tobacco-style warnings

It’s enough to make Jared Brown spill his drink. The co-founder and master distiller behind Sipsmith, the micro-distillery in the vanguard of the craft gin movement in the UK, is contemplating the possibility of graphic warning photographs and plain packaging appearing on bottles of alcohol, akin to the restrictions on tobacco that assume full force in May.

“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he demands. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”

In December, a report from the government advisory body Public Health England suggested that bottles of alcohol could be sold in plain packaging and carry larger health warnings, including photographic warning labels. This month, public health groups called for a ban on all alcohol advertising in the UK and a study published last week by the University of Liverpool recommended placing warning labels on the front of bottles and using plain packaging to emphasise the risks associated with excessive drinking.

Under current arrangements, there are no mandatory requirements for alcohol labelling, although a voluntary “responsibility deal” requires the drinks industry to include warning labels indicating the unit alcohol content, the chief medical officer’s alcohol guidelines and a pregnancy warning. For some campaigners and health professionals, self-regulation and the use of labels with questionable effectiveness is not enough.

‘If you remove branding and packaging, people will trade down in terms of quality,’ says craft spirit branding specialist Michael Vachon.
‘If you remove branding and packaging, people will trade down in terms of quality,’ says craft spirit branding specialist Michael Vachon. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

“There’s been a long and sorry history of the drinks industry drawing up voluntary agreements with government and failing to deliver,” said Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, who chairs the Alcohol Health Alliance. “There needs to be proper balanced information about the calorie content, health risks and guidelines. The public has a right to know that there is a significant link between alcohol and some cancers.”

Sarah Hanratty, interim chief executive of the Portman Group, which administers the industry’s code of practice and set up the Drinkaware website, argues that self-regulation does have teeth. “There are strong commercial sanctions for companies that break the rules and products can be removed from shelves,” she said. “Banning alcohol marketing or calling for plain packaging is not the answer and will only serve to damage Britain’s thriving creative industries.”

One industry that has already voiced alarm at the possibility of plain packaging and warning labels is the design sector. “What would a beautiful bar look like if the back bar was all plain packaging?” asked designer and brand consultant Ron Cregan, who has worked in the industry for over 25 years. “Would the iconic shape of the champagne bottle have to change?”

Cregan is so alarmed that he has got together with like-minded professionals to form a group called Endangered Species to respond to the challenges that may lie ahead: “This has been on my radar for the last 15 years. We’re trying to create a forum so that when it comes to the table we can have a debate. We need to gather our best brains,” he said. “It goes to who we are and how we live and celebrate life. I want to live in a world that’s culturally and socially rich. There’s a kind of semi-religious tone to this. It’s highly sanctimonious.”

Chris Record, a liver specialist at Newcastle University who started the campaign for better labelling on alcohol products in 2004, denies that there is anything self-righteous about his work.

“We’re not temperance people at all,” he said. “We don’t mind people drinking, we just don’t want them to drink excessively and the only way to get this message across is to give them the information. The public has a right to know. We don’t want to interfere with their branding. We just want them to provide the information which they have failed to do voluntarily, so it needs to be mandatory in some form.”

Some observers see the debate around alcohol packaging as the inevitable consequence of the controls placed on tobacco. “It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first,” said Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. “The debates around the tobacco advertising ban 15 years ago were that this was not a precedent, it will never happen with anything else, and yet last week the there were health campaigners saying the same thing should happen with alcohol.”

Craft spirit branding specialist Michael Vachon, who set up Maverick Drinks, sees an unintended consequence of any attempt to hinder branding. “Certainly it would harm what is a burgeoning entrepreneurial scene,” he said. “Packaging plays a big part in being able to sell the product. I’d love to be able to say that the taste of the product is everything but it’s simply not the case. The packaging is a big part of why people trade up to craft brands. If you remove branding and packaging, people will trade down in terms of quality, and that would have the opposite of the intended effect. I’m sure government bodies would prefer people to drink better and less rather than cheaper and more.”


Dan Glaister

The GuardianTramp

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