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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 10:37 GMT
What happened to alcopops?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

It's 10 years since Hooch, the daddy of all alcopops, was launched. The taste among teenagers for sweet alcoholic drinks provoked a national panic. But today the alcopops market is going distinctly flat.

For a brief spell in the mid to late 1990s one could almost have been forgiven for believing the end of civilisation was nigh, and alcopops were to blame. The headlines of the day reflect a heightened sense of alarm about the effects of such drinks.

"Judge's fury at alcopops", "Designer drinks lead young astray", "Alcopops sale led to death" and "Alcopop blitz as more kids get hooked on booze".

The launch of Hooch, an alcoholic lemonade, in the long, hot summer of 1995 went largely uncommented on at the time. But drinkers lapped it up, and Bass, which marketed the brand, was soon selling 2.5 million bottles a week.

Yet within a couple of years, Hooch and a host of copycat brands were at the centre of a storm of controversy.

Grape-flavoured drink, 5% alcohol, the fruit is instantly frozen then crushed into powder

Alcopops were widely seen as a gateway drink, priming teenage taste buds, more normally accustomed to sweet fizzy drinks, for something with a boozy kick. And what a kick - typically, they boasted alcohol levels of 5%, similar to a premium lager, and stronger than the ciders and beers that mischievous teenagers had traditionally turned to when looking to spice up an evening.

Binge drinking and anti-social behaviour had yet to become the buzzwords they are today. But as the backlash grew breweries came under pressure to tone down the irreverent image of some brands, which were said to appeal to underage drinkers.

The cartoon imagery on labels was dropped and one of Britain's biggest drinks breweries was criticised for its use of a marijuana emblem on one of its alcopop drinks.

Fickle market

Today, the alcopops market is well into its second incarnation, and in industry terms is better known as FABs (flavoured alcoholic beverages) or RTDs (ready to drink).

The image is more upmarket, something that's apparent simply from the brand names - Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer rule where Two Dogs, Wildbrew and Lemonhead went before. Hooch ceased to exist two years ago.

Young drinkers used to start on Watney's Red Barrel, then it was what I call the 'cooking' lagers
Kim Slater
But the public's taste for these more sophisticated brews is also waning among their core 20-something market. A new report reveals that sales are down by almost a quarter in three years, and predicts they will continue to fall as the decade rolls on.

The trend is partly down to the increased tax levied on alcopops, which is now the same as straight spirits. But fashion too has taken its toll.

"It's a fad and like any fad it's bound to peak and decline. That's where we are now," says James McCoy, of market researchers Mintel. "This is 'badge drinking' - people are keen to be seen with a particular brand in their hand. The target audience is incredibly fickle."

"The problem with a category like this that's so fashionable is that new drinkers will say 'that's what adults are drinking. I want something else'."

Kim Slater, of the beverage consultancy Canadean, picks up the point.

"Alcohol has cycles. I've been in the business long enough to know people don't want to drink what their father drank. Young drinkers used to start on Watney's Red Barrel, then it was what I call the 'cooking' lagers, then came the premium bottled lagers."

Alcopops, he says, need to be seen as a continuation of that trend, and the controversy that surrounded them in the early days echoed that of premium lager.

"Holsten Pils used to be advertised with the line 'brewed so more sugar turns to alcohol'. That raised a few disapproving voices," says Slater.

Taste for alcohol

In retrospect then, was the uproar over alcopops just hype? Research by the Number 10 Strategy Unit suggest not. It found that consumption of alcohol among 11 to 15-year-olds rose by 63% between 1992 and 2001, and alcopop consumption by children grew markedly between 1995 and 2001.

Woman collapsed after a night out
Young women are drinking more, much of it in bouts
The appeal of alcopops to young women is particularly noted. More than three-quarters of 14-year-old girls who had drunk, drank alcopops, according to Home Office research in 2000.

Today, the big concern is about rising alcohol levels in young adult women.

For Andrew McNeil, of the Institute of Alcohol Concern, the link is clear. "Alcopops have clearly been influential in switching women on to alcohol," he says.

And declining sales of alcopops don't point to a new-found temperance among the British. Young people, says James McCoy, have expanded their repertoire of drinks, to include lagers, wines, spirits, cocktails and more.

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