Playing with fire water

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"Have you got any offers on soft drinks?" I ask the barman as I stand in front of a blackboard listing cut-price lagers, shots and spirits in the...

"Have you got any offers on soft drinks?" I ask the barman as I stand in front of a blackboard listing cut-price lagers, shots and spirits in the Basement Trebles Bar, under the Charles Grey pub in Newcastle city centre.

"No," he replied, pointing to a bottle of Kronenbourg on the bar-top, "but you can get three of those for £4.50."

On this Monday night in the high-street bar, punters can go for the bottled offer or can get four shots for £5.

A single bottle of Kronenbourg along with half-a-pint of orange juice came in at £4.70, with the itemised receipt telling me the beer I had just bought cost £3 and the soft drink £1.70. It is easy to see why drinkers would choose the multi-buy deals.

And it is easy to see why the Basement and its ilk come in for criticism at a time when the trade as a whole is under increasing pressure from the ongoing 'war on alcohol'.

I am finding out first-hand what a night out is like for consumers in a city where the council has voiced serious concerns about the pricing strategies of the Basement and a number of its competitors.

I want to discover whether what is going on in these venues conforms to the industry guidance on alcohol promotions issued by the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the Portman Group and others.

I wonder whether the Basement is acting in a responsible way, given the current climate, and whether such extreme drinks promotions by a handful of operators put the whole trade at risk of heavy-handed blanket action by the government.

At the moment, the on-trade is largely meant to self-police drinks promotions. Pubs voluntarily follow the industry guidance, which carries no legal weight.

However, the document is currently being looked at under a drinks industry review by accountants KPMG, ordered by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and due to be published by the end of this month.

The assessment will focus on cut-price promotions, and Smith has not ruled out changes in the law to force retailers to act responsibly. Lobbying bodies, led by the Alcohol Health Alliance, have also proposed setting minimum prices on alcohol.

Sitting in the Basement, I leaf through the guidance document. As far as I can tell - and as far as any customer would be able to tell - there is no food on offer and no time period set for the promotions, both of which omissions go against the guidance for when promotions are being run.

The guidance also says 'operators should consider including a selection of soft drinks and/or low-alcoholic drinks at a reduced price' running simultaneously with alcohol offers.

The barman's response to my questions showed this was emphatically not the case.

Scantily clad models

Newcastle council licensing officers had pointed me in the direction of a number of bars about which they had concerns. Among them was Sam Jack's, my next stop-off.

Here, large electronic boards listed drinks offers. They were illustrated with scantily clad female models. Ordering a £1.50 bottle of lager, I asked the barman about soft drinks offers. Again, he replied that there were none.

I also asked him about the purpose of the red leather chair on a raised platform near the bar. It turned out this was a 'dentist's chair'.

Customers would be invited onto the stage to sit in this hotseat and have shots poured into their mouths.

Sam Jack's slashed prices were not as extreme as the Basement's. However, alarm bells might ring for anyone privy to the Social Responsibility Standards when they see the borderline sexual imagery used on the promotions, or the dentist's chair.

The guidance says that drinking games, which the dentist's chair could be construed as, should not be run, nor should 'promotional material linked to sexual imagery'.

Several other bars picked out by the council for running irresponsible promotions seemed to conform much more closely to the guidance.

Honourable mentions go to Sinners and Rewind for more moderate pricing and posters advertising free tap water.I took my findings to Newcastle Council. Anita Lower, executive member with responsibility for licensing, says: "We try to stop irresponsible promotions but we can't stop every one.

"We have powers to summon irresponsible operators before a licensing committee and look at withdrawing licences. However, we need someone to make a formal objection. It is difficult for us to act without that. The first thing a magistrate will say is 'were the police involved?'"

Just the right side of legal

Anita calls Sam Jacks' sexual imagery and dentist's chair 'just the right side of legal' but adds: "When promotions become the main way to attract customers, that's a problem."

Bob Senior, managing director of Utopian Leisure, which operates Sam Jack's, defends the site, saying: "There are cheaper bars around ours. The prices in Sam Jack's are not particularly cheap in a competitive area. We are certainly not irresponsible." The dentist's chair promotion, he says, involves a consumer getting a single shot of a low-ABV spirit.

A spokesman for Ladhar Group, which owns the Basement Treble Bar, said the Charles Grey pub had recently been accredited under the Best Bar None awards scheme and had been in the top five finalists in Newcastle.

"The drinks offers being promoted are carefully managed and monitored and comply with the licensing policy of Newcastle City Council," he said.

"As a company we regularly liaise with licensing officers and Northumbria Police and no issues have arisen as a result of the drinks offers which you comment on.

Indeed both Sinners (which we also operate) and the Charles Grey have low incident records.

"We as a company appreciate the difficulties that can arise when irresponsible offers are made which encourage binge-drinking. As responsible operators those problems have been avoided at our premises but we continue to closely monitor the situation."

Time will tell whether the pressure groups get their way and whether the government decides pubs are incapable of self-policing on drinks promotions. But are the marketing tactics I witnessed in Newcastle in the trade's best interest while this threat is hanging over it?

What the guidance says

The Social Responsibility Standards' signatories include the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the BII and the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations (FLVA).

The code sets out that operators should:

  • Promote responsible drinking and the 'sensible drinking' message
  • Avoid any actions that encourage or condone irresponsible or immoderate drinking.

Promotions should comply with guidelines including:

  • Timing: During early-evening happy hours, some customers may be drinking on an empty stomach, so providing food/bar snacks at these times is helpful
  • Duration: Set a clear time period… otherwise customers may hurry their purchases and therefore their drinking in case prices suddenly rise
  • Discounts: Operators should consider including a selection of soft drinks and/or low-alcohol drinks at a reduced price.

Promotions that should not be run include:

  • All-you-can drink deals
  • Anything linked to sexual imagery or implying sexual success

For more information or a copy of the guidance,

For more information or a copy of the guidance, see

The BBPA's view

Lee Le Clercq, BBPA regional secretary for the North of England, says: "The problem is that running drinks promotions is not against the law; it's just a question of whether it's responsible.

"It's a tough time in the marketplace. But what is unfair is if just one venue does it, it makes it difficult for others to compete without u

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