The CEOs of homelessness charities Shekinah and Thames Reach have strongly criticized the government for not raising duty on super strength white cider which they said is killing more homeless people than heroin and crack.
The CEO of Thames Reach Jeremy Swain said “the evidence showing that the drinks are killing people is beyond dispute and each month that goes past leads to further deaths.” John Hamblin CEO of Shekinah Charity said “we see daily examples of people just killing themselves from consuming very large quantities of ridiculously cheap super strength cider”. Both said they were “very disappointed” by the decision.
The decision has also been condemned by Joanne Good, the mother of 16 year old Megan Craig Wilkinson who died after drinking 1.5 litres of super strength cider Frosty Jack. Joanne Good has lobbied MPs to ban or raise duty on what she called “pocket money” cider. Professor Sir Ian Gilmore Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance said super strength white cider is almost exclusively drunk by children, street drinkers and the homeless because of its sweet taste and low price.
It is possible to buy a 3 litre bottle of super strength cider which contains as much alcohol as 22 shots of vodka for less than £3.50 or $4. Cider which can be up to 9% alcohol has the lowest duty of any alcohol product in the UK at only 5p per unit less than a third of the rate for beers at the same strength. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce wrote in the Huffington Post that the Chancellor needed “to call time on the ability to buy a can of cider for cheaper than a bottle of water.”
Joanne Good told The Mirror: “I felt disappointed that there’s no immediate rise on the cheap cider that is causing so many problems in society. Hopefully this would put children off from drinking it and maybe a life could be saved. If it was up to me, I would like to see ciders like these removed from sale.”
Both Joanne Good, Thames Reach and the Alcohol Health Alliance welcomed the fact that the government would be consulting on introducing a higher rate of duty on cider of 5.5 to 7.5% volume. But John Hamblin CEO of Shekinah Charity said “they have been consulting for years there’s been lots of evidence presented to government about the harms of super strength cider but there just seems to be a reluctance in government to tax people’s leisure. But you and I don’t go round to meals at friend’s houses on Saturday night when someone brings out a bottle of White lightening. But there’s somehow a perception that higher taxes on super strength cider and lager will impact on Joe Public that’s not the case.” Conservative MP Fiona Bruce agreed saying “80% of cider sales would be completely unaffected by such a move.”
Cider has had an artificially low rate of duty since the Second World War to encourage people to plant apple trees. But John Hamblin said “We are not targeting people drinking craft ciders which are made from apples this super strength cider should not even be called cider. It’s an insult to call it cider as its never seen an apple in its life it’s just a concoction of chemicals.”
When Joanne Good’s MP Labour’s Mary Glindon brought up the issue of super strength cider at Prime Minister’s question time Theresa May said the government had already dealt with it. “We have taken action through the duty system so these high-strength ciders and beers are taxed more than equivalent lower strength products.We have also, of course, taken action on the very cheap alcohol by banning sales below duty plus VAT.”
But Alcohol Research UK director of research Dr James Nicholls said “The price per unit for strong ciders is considerably lower than beer at the same strength. There is a lot of evidence it is drink by people with serious alcohol problems.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: the government needed to “move the tax system towards a more sensible scheme where the stronger alcohol is, the more highly it is taxed. By taxing these drinks more strongly, the government will also encourage producers to lower the alcohol content in the drinks.”
John Hamblin of Shekinah said “people won’t stop drinking because you put the price up we are working with very vulnerable complex people when you increase the price they come off the super strength lager and cider and switch to lower strength say 4%. We not only see a rapid increase in their health but it makes it far easier for us to engage with people.”
The managing director of Aston Manor, the firm that makes Frosty Jack’s, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very unhappy with the government’s consultation on the issue.
“We are very surprised that in the detail of the Budget Statement there is mention of a plan to consult on a new duty rate ‘to target white cider’,” Gordon Johncox told the Mirror.
“We often point to the inaccurate mythology that exists around white cider and we are disappointed that without evidence this announcement has been made. We will participate fully in the consultation process and provide evidence that dispels the myths that exist”
But MP Fiona Bruce said “opinion polling for the Alcohol Health Alliance indicates 66% of the public support higher taxes on white cider. Perhaps most importantly, Public Health England’s recent report clearly states that tackling affordability would be the best way to reduce alcohol harm. Market leader Frosty Jack’s is consistently ranked among the top brands consumed by underage dependent drinkers. .A quarter of patients in alcohol treatment services drink white ciders, and of these nearly half drink them exclusively.”
She added “such measures have worked in the past: consumption of super-strength beer fell by a quarter in response to the creation of a higher rate duty band in 2011.”