From a glut of lemons to a global health crisis: talk about unintended consequences!

From a glut of lemons to a global health crisis: talk about unintended consequences!

I’d always assumed that the alcopops revolution started out as a cynical marketing exercise by a major brewery. Apparently not. According to the Independent, it’s all down to an Australian farmer who suggested brewing the lemons his neighbour couldn’t sell. The result was Two Dogs – and no obvious intention to appeal to underage drinkers.

But it wasn’t long before the big breweries cottoned on to the potential of Ready To Drink beverages (RTDs) that contain alcohol but taste like a soft drink or even a milkshake.  When CHOICE magazine ran a taste test on 18-19 year olds (a younger age group would be even more interesting but, obviously, it’s not ethically or legally possible) they found that 24 per cent thought an alcopop didn’t contain alcohol and more were unsure.

In paper published in the American Journal of Public Health2, James F. Mosher makes some very interesting observations about distillers, alcopops and changes in young Americans’ drinking habits.

He points out that, between 1970 and 1997, young consumers who associated distilled spirits with older generations precipitated a boom in beer sales. Distillers were concerned that they were not only losing market share in the short term but that their long-term market would also shrink if these youngsters stuck to beer as they grew up.

Using Smirnoff as a case study, Mosher shares their consequent three-step promotional strategy.

1. Develop a beverage that tasted like soft drinks.

2. Use the Smirnoff Vodka brand name but market the product as a malt beverage to compete effectively with beer in terms of price, availability, and advertising in electronic media.

3. Reorient Smirnoff Vodka itself as a young person’s brand by adding new fruit flavours and using other marketing innovations.

But the real stroke of genius was a public relations program designed to convince policymakers, public health and medical groups as well as the public that the company was actively discouraging underage drinking. Who did they hire to run it? Guy Smith, a former vice president of Philip Morris who cut his teeth on the tobacco wars.

The earlier the better

Evidence suggests that, if you start drinking before you’re 15, you’re significantly more likely to become a heavy consumer and to experience a wide range of alcohol-related problems than if you wait till you’re 21.

In America, underage drinking is described as a public health crisis. Mosher quotes the Surgeon General: “The short- and long-term consequences that arise from underage alcohol consumption are astonishing in their range and magnitude. . . . [It] is a leading contributor to death from injuries, which are the main cause of death for people under 21, and plays a significant role in risky sexual behavior, physical and sexual assault, academic failure, and illicit drug use, among other adverse consequences.”

In the UK, statistics from the National ­Treatment Agency for Substance Misuseshow that, in 2011, over 3,000 young Britons, some as young as 12, were forced to seek help for a drinking problem and nearly six children a day were admitted to accident and emergency departments of hospitals for alcohol-related problems.

In Australia, a report prepared in 2011 for the government found that three of every four Australian secondary students aged between 12 and 17 years had tried alcohol at some time in their lives and 51 per cent had consumed alcohol in the 12 months preceding the survey. Around 19 per cent of all 17-year-old students had consumed more than four drinks on at least one of the preceding

seven days. Their drinks of choice? Premixed spirits for the girls; premixed spirits and beer for the boys.

If Duncan MacGillivray hadn’t lived next door to a lemon farmer and there been no Two Dogs, distillers would have no doubt found another pathway to young hearts and minds. But, with clear evidence that alcopops are fuelling an increase in underage drinking and all of its associated problems, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of unintended consequences.

1 Joe Camel in a Bottle: Diageo, the Smirnoff Brand, and the Transformation of the Youth Alcohol Market. American Journal of Public Health, January 2012, Vol 102, No.