Turning the tide on alcohol abuse

It’s a sunny day in Broadstairs, a pretty seaside town nestled between Margate and Ramsgate on Kent’s Thanet coast, and Neil Butcher has got his stencil out. After a minute of paint-spraying there’s a bright-orange sign lighting up the pavement outside the door of Budgens on The Broadway, reminding shoppers it’s an offence to buy alcohol for under-18s.

That’s one more stop done on his regular tour of the town’s retailers. As we go around, the trading standards officer is invariably greeted by licensees like an old friend. Pleasantries are exchanged, family news is updated, and there’s a bit of chat about the positioning of Challenge 25 signs.

This is not enforcement. It’s partnership.

For the past few years Butcher, a TSO for Kent County Council, has spent three days a week as Community Alcohol Partnerships’ man on the ground, and he’s loving it.

“I can see the benefits, what young people are getting out of it,” he says, “It’s so good to know that what you’re doing is having an impact.”

But there are some in the public health community who believe he’s wasting his time, that educational campaigns funded by the alcohol industry can never be as effective at curbing under-age drinking as tough regulation, that it’s little more than a publicity stunt. 

The evidence suggests otherwise. On average, introducing a CAP scheme brings a 40% reduction in antisocial behaviour among young people and a 60% fall, over 18 months to two years, of drinking among 13 to 16-year-olds.

At a cost of £3,000 to £5,000 a scheme, that’s good value. And for CAP director Kate Winstanley, who heads a small team in a corner of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association office in London, nurturing a relationship between retailers and the police, schools and youth services is vital to its success.

“I wouldn’t say CAPs are leading the decline in drinking among children, but they play a not insignificant role alongside other factors,” she says. “We focus where the need is greatest and that will inform the action plan determined by our partners on the ground – no one CAP is the same [as another].

“Our first challenge is to bring all the key agencies together and talk to all the retailers in person and offer training, which might come from a local supermarket.”

Stores are then faced with a Challenge 25 compliancy test in which a person aged under 25, but over 18, attempts to make a purchase. If they fail to challenge them they are offered more training.

“The tests are transparent, it’s not entrapment,” says Winstanley. “Most are happy to go along with it. There might be a few bad eggs, but we try to bring them on board.

“Retailers are part of the solution. They play an important role in getting the messages across,” she goes on. “Our USP is that we very much act at the point of sale and we have a really high compliance from retailers. It can be lonely as a retailer. Some are bullied by groups of youths. If they’re part of a CAP they feel empowered – to threaten to call the police, for instance. They know there’s support if they need it.

“It’s important this is partnership working rather than adversarial, so we can have a flow of intelligence about where the issues are.”

As well as the supply side, CAPs work on “demand drivers, making sure kids have positive things to do, and the right kind of education in alcohol”, programmes sourced from the Alcohol Education Trust and Drinkaware – “the best of what’s out there”.

Recently, CAP started working with the Royal Society for Public Health, funding the qualification and summer holiday activities for its Young Health Champions peer mentoring programme for 14 and 15-year-olds, which empowers them to talk about alcohol to other kids.

Reaching parents can be the difficult bit. “That’s really challenging and we’re doing some focus group research to help us do that,” Winstanley says.

With 20 to 30 added each year, there are now 182 projects across the UK, from Orkney to the Isle of Wight. 

You’re not going to see CAPs in every town in the country, though. “We’re focused on where there’s a problem, and most of the UK doesn’t need one,” says Winstanley. “We don’t see the need to grow forever. Another 120 in the right areas should be enough.”

In places where under-age drinking isn’t a huge issue it wouldn’t be cost effective. And, at the other end of the scale, there are young drinkers with all kinds of other problems, “a hard core that will need a lot of intervention”, she says. “We concentrate on the majority.”

While CAP has a strong profile at political level, Winstanley concedes that perhaps it doesn’t sing its own praises enough. Preventing under-age drinking, she believes, has a long-term impact on society as a whole. 

“If you reduce drinking before the age of 15 the evidence shows there’s a big correlation with alcohol-related issues later in life. It’s about building strong children to fix adults – we’re future-proofing the nation. 

“The real benefits, saving money and tears, have yet to reveal themselves.”

Continuing Expansion 

Following a pilot scheme in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, by the Wine & Spirits Trade Association’s Alcohol Standards Group, CAP was set up as a community interest company in 2011, funded by 12 big retailers and 12 big producers.

An initial focus on driving awareness of Challenge 25 – the initiative that encourages retailers to ask for ID if a customer looks younger than 25 – and alcohol education in schools, it has now expanded to include diversionary activity, making sure there’s enough for young people to do to distract them from drinking.

The impact of each scheme is measured by an evaluation framework that draws on alcohol-specific hospital admissions for under-18s, police statistics on, for example, antisocial behaviour convictions, and anecdotal evidence including retailers’ experience of refusing under-age sales.

Its board is currently chaired by Derek Lewis, also chairman of mental health charity Mencap, perhaps best known as the director-general of HM Prisons sacked by home secretary Michael Howard in the 1990s.

CAP Basics Explained

Kent has the highest number of CAPs in the country and Neil Butcher, 22 years a trading standards officer on the council, oversees them all.

In Broadstairs 14 licensed retailers are part of the scheme, and when it launched, more than two years ago, the problem was clear. Twelve of them failed the initial Challenge 25 test purchases.

Training had an immediate impact and at the next test purchase only two failed.

The tests are not a stick to beat them with,” says Butcher. “We want to help them, and they understand that. If young people find someone who’ll serve them, they’ll all go there.”

The CAP has also helped smaller retailers share the best practices of the bigger stores, such as keeping an eye out for proxy sales by adults. 

If someone comes to the till with four bottles of 25cl Smirnoff they should refuse the sale, but it’s also about having the confidence to say no. So we give them training in using the right language, how to refuse, how to be assertive.

It’s important, too, that they record refusals so we know where there’s a problem and can target the pinch points on a Friday or Saturday night. We might go out and stencil and make the police aware there’s a problem. But if retailers don’t report it, we don’t know.”

Butcher also works closely with schools, finding creative ways to get the message across at assemblies and providing diversionary activities such as litter-picking in a park over the summer holidays.

The area has a lot of language schools, and the CAP has started giving them extra support in making foreign students aware of the local licensing laws.

Retailers Applying CAP Initiatives

Walking into Sainsbury’s at Westwood, on the outskirts of Broadstairs, you can’t miss that you’re in a CAP area as a giant poster hits you in the eye at the bottom of the escalator.

Like other major retailers, Sainsbury’s branches have processes and training to ensure Challenge 25 is enforced and refusals monitored, and security staff on the door are on the alert, too.

I think we’re nailing it,” says store operations manager Graham Smith. “But a lot of kids hang around here, so we
have to keep the message refreshed. Signs make it more
visible. People know we’re serious, and we’re seeing positive trends in refusals.”

Staff are also carrying out a CAP survey among customers to get their impressions of under-age drinking in the area and improve local understanding of the problem.

At Budgens, operations manager Alistair Nicol has seen the store get to grips with an issue he admits they were in denial about. 

The magic word for me is collaboration.” he says. The CAP is a joined-up effort to tackle the problem. It’s a nuisance for us as retailers. We all have a vested interest in reducing under-age drinking. They’re our kids, after all.

Now we’re on to it there’s far more awareness among youngsters. They see it as a struggle to get anything from us and it’s nowhere near the problem it used to be. 

We’ve weeded out from the shelves the type of alcohol that young people might buy. Our staff are vigilant and the work CAP does in schools filters through. There is a trickle feed from so many different angles.”

Chris Beckett, owner of traditional off-licence the Bottleneck, off Broadstairs seafront, has removed alcopops and strong white ciders from his shelves. We’re no longer a target. We have very few problems here now, and the CAP has helped in that,” he says.

Londis manager Jalpesh Patel has seen improvement, too. It used to be more of a problem – two or three times a week we had children in here trying to buy alcohol and when we refused they’d start arguing. The CAP has been helpful for the business. Under-age refusals and proxy buying are less. People understand now, and it’s given us confidence.”

Best-One manager Nadarajah Naguleswaran is a bit of a CAP local hero – he suggested the film window sticker version of the stencil that’s now all over the country.

He’s also opted for one of the giant pull-up posters, which he’s placed in a prominent position beside the alcohol shelves. 

I don’t want any headaches and it’s been very helpful,” he says. A couple of years ago young people were running away with drink, and it’s been a deterrent.”

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