Alcohol policy in tatters as health experts revolt
Alcohol policy in tatters as health experts revolt Source – The Guardian The government’s “responsibility” deal on alcohol looks likely to fall apart as health experts, angered by the limited concessions required of the drinks industry, consider walking away from the table.
The deal, between the industry, the government and health experts – including the chiefs of groups such as Alcohol Concern and the British Liver Trust, as well as senior doctors working on alcohol-related health problems – was billed, when launched last summer, as a fresh, collaborative approach to a serious public health problem. But an investigation by the Guardian newspaper has found that the major issues flagged up by health experts, such as the price of a unit of alcohol and marketing, are not even up for discussion.
The investigation also found: The so-called responsibility deal will do the “bare minimum”, such as putting information on beer mats. During the consultation period on minimum pricing last year, the Home Office minister in charge of the policy had only one meeting with an external organisation – the giant drinks company Diageo.
The government’s announcement of a minimum price on alcohol equal to the cost of tax paid on it – duty plus VAT – which is due to be introduced, would not have affected any of the more than 3,600 drink promotions offered at four major supermarkets in the last three months. The responsibility deal will now be reduced to “pledges” being made by drinks manufacturers and retailers, including supermarkets. But those agreed on relate only to the provision of more information, such as the labelling of 80% of bottles and cans by 2013 to show how many units of alcohol they contain, more information in supermarkets, unit warnings on beer mats in pubs and an agreement not to put up drink advertising posters within 100 metres of schools.
Health experts consider these to be little more than a figleaf. While better information is useful, they say that studies have shown it makes little difference to the rising numbers of people who drink to excess. “Industry has done the bare minimum,” said an insider. “This is not going to do anything to lower alcohol-related harm. It allows industry to be seen in a very positive light, working side-by-side with government.” Another insider described “endless delaying tactics by the industry over doing anything meaningful”, adding of successive governments, including this one, that “no one really wants to take the industry on”. The coalition refused to allow any discussion by the group working on the responsibility deal about moving to pricing per unit, which a Sheffield University study published last year in the Lancet medical journal showed could have a real impact in reducing harmful drinking, and which Sir Liam Donaldson, then chief medical officer, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and doctors’ organisations have endorsed. Health groups involved in the alcohol network arm of the responsibility deal (the other arms are food, physical activity, health at work and behaviour change) also wanted to talk about irresponsible marketing and promotion and licensing hours.
They were told by the Department of Health that all those issues were outside the parameters of the discussions. Documents seen by the Guardian show that the responsibility deal will reflect the positive message of the industry, not a negative one about alcohol harm. “We will foster a culture of responsible drinking, which will help people to drink sensibly within recommended limits,” it says. Drinks manufacturers, retailers and pubs will be able to claim credit for being part of the public health deal if they sign up to just one of the pledges. Health groups drew the line at the proposal by the industry that its own trade body, the Portman Group, should monitor whether the pledges are carried out. It was eventually agreed that a committee representing all parties should do it. David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, said the Sheffield study was “a useful contribution to the debate, but like any study it has its limitations”. He said: “In the end this is modelling work and assumes that everything else remains equal when you change the price.” On the contrary, he said, some retailers would alter their prices, consumers might change their behaviour and there could be an increase in illegal imports. “There is a problem of alcohol misuse, but let’s not forget that consumption has been falling for approximately six years,” he added. Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Alliance of concerned health bodies, said it was probably true that alcohol consumption had dropped slightly in the last few years, “but those who are drinking are probably drinking more”.
The health department said: “The government has taken the first step to ban below-cost sales and a higher tax on high-strength beers. Through the public health responsibility deal, we are challenging industry to take action that will help consumers live healthier lives, … in some areas where it isn’t possible or effective to regulate.” The Home Office said: “Ministers and special advisers meet with a range of partners on a regular basis.Banning the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty plus VAT will enable us to tackle the very worst instances of deep discounting of alcohol whilst being easily implemented and enforced. “We have sent a clear message that the government will not stand by and let drink be sold so cheaply that it leads to a greater risk of health harms or drunken violence.