Charities urge ministers to save lives by bringing in punitive pricing to save a generation of 'young olds' who are pressing the fast-forward button to self-destruction
A leading homeless charity last night pleaded with the government to drastically raise the price of super-strength beers and ciders, saying that cheap alcohol was killing more people living rough than crack cocaine or heroin.
Thames Reach, which helps thousands of homeless people throughout London and the south-east, said it was alarmed that proposals to increase the price of cider, put forward by the last government, had been scrapped in response to furious lobbying from West Country producers.
However, it is understood that ministers are now looking at proposals to increase the price of "white cider" – the cheap, high-strength alcohol that is made with a minimum apple content and has become the drink of choice for homeless people in recent years.
"From our experiences, we feel pretty confident in saying these drinks are killing more people than heroin or crack," said Mike Nicholas, spokesman for Thames Reach.
One can of super-strength cider contains 4.5 units of alcohol – more than the recommended daily limit – and costs as little as 59p.
Nicholas said that, of the 110 people who had died in Thames Reach hostels over the past three years, 18 were receiving support for drug addiction, while 45 had alcohol dependency, with the vast majority consuming super-strength lagers and ciders that range between 7.5% and 9% in strength. In one hostel there had been 28 deaths in the past two years, of which 21 were attributed to super-strength alcohol.
He also said the vast majority of homeless people living in Thames Reach's 59-bed hostel in Vauxhall, south London, were there because of problems with super-strength alcohol. "Many people we work with tell us they find it more difficult to get off super-strength than heroin," Nicholas said. "With drugs you've got to find dealers, whereas super-strength alcohol is in every corner shop."
Nicholas warned that the alcohol was creating a generation of "young olds". "It's causing mobility issues, incontinence, heart and liver problems," he said. "We have people who are in their 30s who look like they are in their 50s. I've just come back from seeing a man in one of our hostels who was vomiting blood. He was 47 and doubted whether he would see 48."
Thames Reach's concerns are shared by other homeless charities, health charities and doctors' groups, which have called on the government to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol as part of its ongoing consultation on problem drinking. Under the proposals the cost of a 2.5-litre bottle of super-strength cider could rise from around £2.50 to £7.50.
The government has rejected the proposals, signalling that it would prefer to bar retailers from selling drink at below cost price. But the Observer understands that civil servants are now looking at ways of increasing the price of white cider in a way that would not hit traditional cider manufacturers.
Writing in the current issue of the Big Issue, Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach, said it was time for the government to take action if more lives were not to be lost. "The rise of the super-strength drinks is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I was a street outreach worker in the 1980s, they were virtually unknown," he said.
"Of course, alcoholism among the homeless is hardly new. But what is different is the speed of the deterioration caused by the super-strength drinks. Consuming them is akin to pushing the fast forward on your life."
Swain predicted that, if prices were increased on super-strength alcohol, "people seriously addicted to alcohol would move over to weaker, cheaper lagers and ciders". It would then be much easier to help them take further steps towards abstinence and recovery.
"If they're drinking normal-strength lagers or ciders they stop behaving like maniacs," Swain told the Observer. "We can at least talk to them and have a serious conversation. Getting these people into detoxification centres is difficult because the levels of alcohol they are consuming are too high for them to come down from."
There have been suggestions that the drinks industry was prepared to reduce the size of its super-strength cans from 500ml to 440ml in response to concerns about the drinks' impact on public health and antisocial behaviour. But the main producers dropped the plan at the eleventh hour. Manufacturers of super-strength lagers include InBev, which makes Tennent's Super, Carlsberg, which makes Special Brew and Skol Super, and Wells and Young's, which makes Kestrel Super.
In the super-strength cider market, one of the most popular brands is White Ace, which is 7.5% in strength and sells for 59p a can.
White Lightning cider, sometimes referred to as "White Frightening" because of the paranoia it was said to induce, has been discontinued by Heineken. The company admitted that white cider had become a problem drink because it had connotations with "the park bench". White cider is made from dry apple pulp and apple concentrate. Unlike traditional cider, the alcohol is provided through the addition of glucose or corn syrup.
Dennis Rogers, a volunteer with Thames Reach, who has beaten his addiction to super-strength alcohol, said it was a cheap way of dealing with living on the streets.
"The quicker you could get drunk, the better," he said. "The Tennent's and the Special Brew, they did the job. I wanted to get drunk as quickly as possible. I was quite prepared to drink myself to death."
It was only after Rogers was stabbed in a fight and sent to hospital that he was able to enter rehab and face up to life without alcohol. "There is life without drink but just thinking about it is scary."
Swain said he had recently encountered a group of homeless Polish workers who were employed by off-licences to unload deliveries and were being paid in White Ace. In their alcoholic state they had resorted to barbecuing rats for food.
"Wherever you have these drinks, there's always going to be trouble."