The budget included the first increase on excise duty for several years and the changes to business rates will hit some landlords hard.
There was also another potential bit of bad news that was slipped through unnoticed.
A consultation document on ‘Alcohol Structures’ was issued in March, the opening sentence of which states that “the Government believes that alcohol duties should be related to the alcoholic strength of drinks”.
As the law stands, the EU requires beer and spirit duties to be directly proportional to alcohol content, but this is not the case with wine and cider.
These are banded and, for example a pint of 1.3% alcohol by volume (abv) still cider currently pays the same amount of alcohol duty as a pint of 7.5% abv cider. The Government are clear in their aim to target cheap, high strength ‘white’ ciders, below 7.5% abv.
White cider is made from pomace, the dry apple residue left over from traditional cider production, imported apple concentrates and corn syrup or glucose, therefore having little in common with traditional cider and in many cases having little more than a passing acquaintance with apples.
It is generally sold in large bottles with an abv of close to 7.5% and a price for a 3l bottle of £3.59, which contains 22.5 units of alcohol one-and-a-half times the number of units the UK Chief Medical Officers have recommended for weekly consumption.
Public health groups report that these high strength products are closely associated with dependent, street and underage drinking primarily due to their low price and research suggests that 25% of alcohol treatment services patients in Glasgow and Edinburgh drink white cider, and 45% of white cider drinkers drink it exclusively.
In the past the government has brought in measures to encourage producers to increase the juice content and also to reclassify the product as a made-wine, which attracts a higher level of duty.
The new proposals aim to introduce a new duty band below the 7.5% threshold.
The document states that “While a new duty band would target high strength ‘white’ ciders, all still ciders and perries within the band would be impacted. The Government’s intention is to target ‘white’ ciders, and to avoid any impacts on traditional cider makers.”
It is hard to see how those two sentences can be reconciled.
Personally I am ambivalent. It is clear that white cider is a product that can cause serious damage to health if it is misused, and the pricing profile and medical evidence suggest that a large number of the people do misuse it.
However, would someone with an alcohol dependency simply stop drinking because the price of white cider increases, or would he or she redouble their efforts to obtain it? Is it possible to target white cider without affecting traditional cider producers? Is it an arrogant middle class position to want white cider drinkers to pay more for their chosen tipple while resisting price increases for the sophisticated products such as wine of which we are so fond? A devil’s advocate might suggest that a spurious concern for the health of the nation is in fact an attack on the poorest sector of society who are least able to defend themselves.