Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bum Wines – How Scotland and the US Are Dealing With Them

“Bum wines” have always had a market, in the poorer parts of town.  These low cost, fortified wines were considered a problem, even back in the mid-1800’s.  They gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1930’s, as a result of Prohibition and the Great Depression. 

Bum wines are made from a low-end, heavily sweetened wine that is fortified with spirits to increase the alcohol content from 14% to 20%.  The wine is sweet, easy to get, cheap to buy, and popular with those who have little money, are disadvantaged, or homeless.  These wines and beers are drunk more for their effect than their taste.

In the U.S., bum wines include Thunderbird, Night Train, MD 20/20, Cisco, and Wild Irish Rose.

Now, a Scottish “bum wine,” Buckfast Tonic Wine, is in the news.

The Benedictine monks have produced Buckfast Tonic Wine at Buckfast Abbey, since the 1880's.  It was originally sold as a "medicine to be taken in small quantities, three times a day."   A London wine merchant placed Buckfast Tonic Wine into distribution in 1927. 

The cheap, sweet wine remains popular today with students and the working class, but it’s being called an "irresponsible drink" by the Scottish Health Minister, and is blamed for violent and anti-social behaviors. The tonic wine has an alcohol content of 15% and includes 281mg of caffeine - as much as eight cans of cola, in one 750ml bottle.

Last week, J. Chandler & Company, distributors of Buckfast Tonic Wine, accused the Strathclyde Police, Scotland’s largest police force, of “ethnic cleansing” by attempting to disgrace the Buckfast brand.

The Glasgow-based police force have requested that several convenience stores and off-license stores (stores permitted to sell sealed bottles to be taken off premises by the buyer), place a sticker on the Buckfast bottles so that they may be traced.  

According to the Strathclyde Police, Buckfast Tonic Wine was mentioned in over 5,638 crime reports, between 2006 and 2009.  That’s about three crimes per day, with one in ten of those offenses having been violent.  Police believe that by placing the stickers on the bottles, it will be easier to track where a bottle was purchased, if it is found at a crime scene or in the possession of someone underage.

J. Chandler & Company is requesting that a judge in the Court of Sessions find that the wine is being discriminated against since police singled out this brand and encouraged retailers to unlawfully label the bottles with the stickers, or persuaded them to remove it from store shelves. (Buckfast was the UK’s number one selling fortified wine in 2010.)

A spokesperson for J. Chandler & Company equated the discrimination to a form of “ethnic cleansing” of alcohol brands that the police and politicians in Scotland don’t like.

The Scottish Government, known as the Scottish Executive, has stated that the wine contributes to public drunkenness and can lead to antisocial behaviors. Officials say they want to find a way to lessen the impact that Buckfast has on its drinkers.

Scottish police say that neither the distributors of the product, nor the lawyers representing the monks who make it, are willing to take responsibility for the behaviors of those who drink the tonic wine.

The distributors believe that the government is trying to blame the drinks industry, in general, and Buckfast, in particular, for antisocial crimes that occur in impoverished areas, and that the individuals who drink the wine and then participate in a crime should be held responsible for their actions.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., three cities located in Washington State have enacted "Alcohol Impact Areas” (AIA) for similar reasons.  

In 2006, the State Liquor Control Board prohibited the sale of low priced, high-alcohol-beverages in an impoverished neighborhood, designated as an “Alcohol Impact Area,” in Seattle.  Over two-dozen beers and several wines were banned.  The wines included were MD 20/20, Night Train, Thunderbird, Wild Irish Rose, Cisco, Boone’s Farm, and Gino’s Premium Blend.

In 2008, the Washington Liquor Control Board recognized two locations within the city of Tacoma as AIA’s.  Over forty low cost, high-alcohol-content beers and wines were outlawed for sale. The wines there included MD 20/20, Cisco, Night Train, Wile Irish Rose and Thunderbird. It was announced last week that Tacoma is working to establish its third AIA.

Then, in 2010, the Washington State Liquor Board declared an AIA in downtown Spokane, prohibiting over 30 low-cost, high-alcohol-content beverages from being sold.

Last year, the State of Oregon was set to enact its own AIA ban in the downtown section of Portland when plans were abruptly stopped.  In a letter sent to a Portland City Commissioner it was stated that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission did not have the power to enact such a rule.

Portland residents are divided on the issue of AIA bans; would it really work?  Should the ban be on all low cost, high-alcohol-content (14% or higher) beers and wines in the entire city, or state?  For now, the City of Portland and its residents await a ruling by the State’s Attorney General.

But a general ban also presents problems - What do you do about a Merlot that is 14% alcohol?  This is not the preferred drink of bums and those underage, but the alcohol percentage puts it on the banned list.

And how long is the time between when the banned list is issued and when it is updated?  A wine may be released at 14% alcohol one year, but the next year the alcohol content is only 13%.  Will the wine be monitored?  By whom?  What agency rules to remove it from the list? 

And we must ask ourselves – Are we, as a society, trying to legislate morality? 

Just how much accountability should a person be required by law to accept for their personal actions?

There are no easy answers to this dilemma.  What is your opinion?

~ Joy