The hair of the dog that bit you the night before: the experiences of homeless people addicted to super-strength lagers and ciders

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You can’t buy Tenant’s Super, Carlsberg Special Brew, White Ace or any other super strength lager or cider in pubs or bars. And you can’t buy them in ‘nice’ neighborhoods either. But you can find these drinks in small off-licenses in less well heeled parts of towns and cities everywhere.

The homelessness charity Thames Reach is currently lobbying Government and the drinks industry to ban the sale of super strength lagers and ciders. Thames Reach claim that five out of six deaths at their hostels are a direct result of drinking what is commonly known as ‘tramp juice’.

Thames Reach further argue that these high-strength drinks are deliberately set at a low price (many of these products can be bought for less than a pound per can,  the same price as lagers and ciders half their strength) to target  individuals with  alcohol dependency problems and little money in their pockets.

The drinks industry is self regulated by the Portman Group. Their Chief Executive, David Poley was recently quoted as saying “There’s no reason really to suppose that these drinks don’t have a market amongst  responsible adult drinkers. Yes, they are also consumed by people with alcohol dependency problems – that does not necessarily mean they are irresponsibly sold”.

Caught between Thames Reach and the Portman Group are the individuals whose lives this is about.

I visited Thames Reach’s specialist ‘wet’ hostel, Graham House, on numerous occasions over a four month period, and got to know some of the residents. I was curious as to whether they supported Thames Reach’s campaign. 

The response I got would suggest that for Thames Reach to succeed, they not only have to battle the drinks industry but also many of their own clients.

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“Most drugs, you have to go a dodgy dealer. With this you just go to the corner shop. I’m glad I don’t have to go to a dealer!”
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John, 62, drinks five cans of Tenant’s Super every day, down from a peak of 12. Now and then it creeps back up.

“It’ll just rebound. Like prohibition in America… banning it won’t make any difference to me. I’ll just go back to drinking cheap whiskey. You want to ban that next!?”
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David, 48, drinks four litres of super strength cider every day, but he’s determined to cut down, maybe by half he says.

“Fact. No one here likes this shite. Taste a bit if you like. No one drinks it for the taste. When you cut down, you get withdrawal. Bad, bad. Withdrawal kills you. Seen it happen here loads. Ban it, yeah. It’s piss in your veins!
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Janice, 44, used to drink super strength cider, although she couldn’t remember how much. She has recently moved to normal strength Strongbow. She drinks 6-7 cans a day, and thinks she’ll be down to 3-4 cans a day by the end of the year.

“Can’t stand that bloke in the offy. He makes a packet out of us, and he still treats us like we’re scum! If you ban it, at least he’ll be out of pocket!”

Gary, 46, drinks about six cans of Special Brew every day, and half a bottle of vodka too. He has mixed feelings about a ban.

“No, don’t make it illegal … It’s cheap and cheerful. You go to the pub, they charge you, what, two-three quid for a pint?
I haven’t been in a pub for ten years. It’s a rip off. For a quid, you can get something twice as strong, and you can just sit in your room with the radio. It’s nicer like that.”
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“I want to go into detox, but it’s tough."
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Billy, 56, only drinks in his room, and wouldn’t say how much he drinks. But he does say that he drinks less than he used to, and wants to cut down even further.

“Wish they’d banned Kestrel years ago. Nothing good happens when people drink it, nothing good comes of it.”