Government should be responsible for social policy, not us say wholesalers

As the retail, catering and distributive industries wait for the results of the government’s three-month consultation on minimum unit pricing, a fierce backlash has emerged against the idea that wholesalers are irresponsibly pushing cheap superstrength products to retailers who in turn sell them on to young binge drinkers and vagrants.

While the merits – or otherwise – of minimum unit pricing (MUP) continue to be debated within our trade and in society at large, wholesalers are united on one thing – that they cannot be held responsible for society’s ills when they are responsibly selling what is a legal product.

Wholesalers maintain that they have at all times acted responsibly with regard to selling alcohol – several prominent FWD members, including Booker and Bestway, have even signed up to the Department of Health’s Alcohol Unit Reduction initiative, which aims to remove one billion units of alcohol sold annually from the UK market by Dec 2015 principally through “improving consumer choice of lower alcohol products.”

But recent remarks by peer Baroness Joan Bakewell, pointing the finger at wholesalers for “irresponsibly promoting” superstrength beers and ciders to retailers have drawn widespread condemnation.

Landmark told Wholesale News: “We are extremely proud that our group and its members conform to both the letter and spirit of the law. Wholesalers are distributors of products deemed legal and proper by the UK Government – on that basis they are neither responsible for proscribing products arbitrarily, nor for making pricing decisions on anything other than a commercial basis.

“All alcohol products are abused by a misguided few from time to time. Cider, as an indigenous product to the UK, is favourably treated by the Government duty regime hence its [often low]pricing – this is government policy not wholesale irresponsibility. Superstrength lager used to be a very important category for independent retailers and is also a perfectly legal product for wholesalers to sell and has a genuine and legitimate demand from consumers. They are now are a small part of legitimate wholesalers’ businesses.

“Bakewell is plain wrong and should not be pointing fingers without evidence. Legitimate wholesalers provide essential services to tens of thousands of small businesses. They contribute to their local communities, provide employment, pay huge amounts of tax and comply with the law. The suggestion that they are in some way irresponsible is offensive.

Simon Hannah, MD of Scottish wholesaler JW Filshill added: “As both a wholesaler and a retailer, we supply a demand – created by brand owners – to consumers in all product categories, not just alcohol. I would be interested to know if Baroness Bakewell has ever visited a wholesale depot. MUP does not affect the price that wholesalers sell to retailers – it affects the price that retailers sell to consumers – so wholesalers promoting to retailers is irrelevant in this case.

“These products are not illegal but do potentially create social issues if not consumed responsibly – very much in the same way that the 25+ units in a bottle of vodka requires a responsible consumer approach also.”

Hannah added that neither Filshill, nor any other wholesaler he knew, directly promoted alcohol directly to consumers.

“Should we sell cigarettes, should we sell fizzy drinks… where on earth does all this end?” asked Parfetts’ trading director Greg Suszczenia. “We promote these products in the cash and carry only, not our retail club, so at a consumer level we don’t promote it but against our competitors for retailers, we do.

“The big question is, where does social responsibility stop, this is a really dangerous area as it is subjective. Why not ban 3ltr boxes of wine that are often bought by middle-class housewives to disguise their alcohol consumption when putting out the recycling box? I would challenge Joan Bakewell that her opinions on drunks based on snobbery drawing upon the poorest within our society. Alcoholism is a problem suffered at many different levels by different classes in different ways, why single out [tramps or the young]?

“At Parfetts we work within all the legal frameworks of a market-led economy and will adapt to any changes in the law. We just wish our Government were capable of implementing their laws before asking us to make up ones of our own.”

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors added in a statement: “FWD supports the introduction of a minimum unit price because it will prevent supermarkets running irresponsible alcohol promotions to attract consumers into their stores, and create a fairer trading environment for the smaller shops our members supply.

“Strong beers and ciders represent a small proportion of overall alcohol sales, but we recognise concerns over the harm they can do when misused by a small number of consumers. However the decision whether or not to sell these products has to be taken individually by each supplier, wholesaler or retailer.

“If there is demand for a product, a wholesaler’s unilateral decision to delist it is unlikely to affect purchase levels. We are also aware that if legitimate wholesalers opt out of the market, there is a powerful illegal supply chain waiting to take their place.

“The Government can address demand through education and awareness, or raise prices through regulatory intervention, such as the proposed MUP.”

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