Would You Drink ‘Fake Booze’? Distribution and Consumption Patterns of Counterfeit Alcohol

by | Apr 28, 2017 | Counterfeit Alcohol, Food Crime |

On Tuesday 2 May, Jon Spencer, Reader in Criminal Justice, is convening an Expert Group Meeting with stakeholders from the UK and Ireland to engage in dialogue on the distribution and consumption of counterfeit alcohol in the UK. Jon is the Principal Investigator on our Alcohol Research UK funded project into counterfeit alcohol and in this post, he develops a framework for thinking about the market dynamics of ‘fake booze’ and outlines the types of data we need to draw on to inform an understanding of how and why consumers, perhaps knowingly, drink counterfeit alcohols.

Understanding the distribution and consumption patterns of counterfeit alcohol can be a demanding task. One strategy to gain a greater knowledge of these patterns is to plot where there are reported seizures of counterfeit product. In 2012, Engineering and Technology (E&T) Magazine using freedom of Information Requests compiled a list of UK counterfeit alcohol seizures in 2009, 2010 and 2011. There were a total of 265 seizures and each year the seizures more than doubled (2009-31, 2010-72 and 2011-158). These seizures are spread across the country.

This research by E&T suggests that there is an issue of counterfeit alcohol across the UK but it is only measured by seizures – as these data are partial, they may not be the best indicator of counterfeit alcohol distribution and consumption. However, there are other ways in which we can begin to think about the distribution and consumption of counterfeit alcohol.

Foregrounding the Assumptions of Counterfeit Alcohol Distribution and Consumption

There are four assumptions that underpin an understanding of distribution:

First, the distribution of the product is not random, it is connected to networks of distribution in the area in which it is discovered. This suggests that in the areas where there are networks of criminals co-operating together we might find counterfeit alcohol, as co-operation is a necessary activity in the distribution of counterfeit alcohol.

Second, market knowledge ensures that the placement of the alcohol into the market utilises distribution networks that get the product to the consumer.

Third, the point of production may not be local to the distribution and the product can cross jurisdictional borders. This suggests that there is a market of distribution of counterfeit alcohol and this market enhances the efficiency of distribution.

Fourth, that the market in distribution is layered and that each layer is connected by network ties but each layer acts independently. In this respect, the distribution of counterfeit alcohol has similarities to street based drug markets.

Consumption is problematic in that the risk assessment consumers make when purchasing cheap alcohol are unknown. It goes without saying that price is a determinant factor but it seems that it may be a determinant factor in association with other factors. So, there may be a relationship between price and the age of the consumer, and social class and gender.

It is also not known whether the demand in an area stimulates the market, or if the organisation of distribution is the factor that promotes and stimulates the market. What is unclear is what are the demand criteria for a market in counterfeit alcohol.

Without an understanding of the market dynamics in relation to both supply and demand counterfeit alcohol seizures appear to be random events. As noted earlier, the seizures are random to some extent as they highlight enforcement activity and may not be reflective of the structure of distribution or consumption.

Exploring Alternative Data Sources: Integrating Enforcement and Social Data

One approach to understanding consumption markets is to take social data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and look for similarities between the different seizure locations.

Using social and demographic data could be a means of comparing different locations. Indicators of economic well-being, the age profile of an area, health data, and employment data and other variables could be used to determine if there are any correlations in relation to the areas where seizures have occurred. However, this is partial as it relies on the seizure data.

We can utilise what we already know about alcohol consumption patterns based on social indicators. There are ONS sources that provide UK aggregated data on drinking patterns and habits and some of these data are aggregated using the 12 regions of the UK.
Understanding the regional data and exploring the demographic data of the seizure areas could provide a window through which to begin to understand consumption patterns of counterfeit alcohol. It could provide some indicators of areas that are more at risk of counterfeit alcohol consumption, or alternatively, it could suggest that there are too many variables to be able to risk assess areas for vulnerability. If the latter is the case, then consumption patterns will not assist in the enforcement process. However, bringing together demographic and social data for the seizure areas, and ONS data on consumption patterns, might provide a way of beginning to estimate the vulnerability of different local authority locations to counterfeit and other forms of illicit alcohol.

So, would you drink ‘fake booze’?

Our current research on the Distribution and Consumption of Counterfeit Alcohol has begun to address these questions and the meeting of the Expert Group of the research project on 2 May 2017 will develop our thinking further. There is no doubt that we can utilise available data to develop our understanding of the issues raised, in particular gaining insights into which social groups are most vulnerable, or most likely, to consume counterfeit alcohols.

We are committed to a range of qualitative interviews to also begin to explore the experiences of consumers, regulators and other stakeholders in the consumption of ‘risky’ alcohol. Understanding what motivates consumers to buy cheap alcohol and how they understand why it is cheap will be an important element in exploring the structure and operationalisation of distribution and consumption markets.

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