|Alcohol health report: you must all do better|
|Friday, 27 July 2012 11:25|
The drinks trade has been left in no doubt it must do more to satisfy its critics at Westminster, as Gemma McKenna reports
The Health Select Committee's report into the government's Alcohol Strategy is a bit of a mixed bag for the drinks industry.
There's good news in that the committee acknowledges "the great majority of citizens enjoy alcoholic products without significant evidence of harms to their health". That's a relief. What's more, it states that "against that background, the supply of alcohol is an entirely legitimate business". Such an admission, particularly from a health committee, should not be overlooked.
But the negative comments have come most under scrutiny in the past week. The industry feels aggrieved the steps taken under the Responsibility Deal to reduce alcohol - including the collective pledge to cut 1 billion units by 2015 - have been dismissed by the committee. It views the pledges, which have taken a lot of hard work from across the industry, more as a box-ticking exercise than a measure that will have any effect on reducing harmful levels of drinking.
"We do not believe reducing the alcohol in some lagers from 5% to 4.8%, for example, will have any significant impact. If the industry does not bring forward more substantial proposals it risks being seen as paying only lip service to the need to reduce the health harms caused by alcohol," states the report.
What of minimum pricing?
It calls for government to cast its net wider to find evidence to support its minimum price levels. The committee also recommends that the government must recognise "setting the price is not a one-off event", and there should be a sunset clause that can revoke minimum pricing if it is not effective in reducing harmful drinking.
The report also came down in staunch opposition to a ban on multibuys, saying once again, there simply isn't enough evidence to support it, and canny retailers would simply find ways around it that would make the policy look stupid. In any case, were a minimum price introduced, a ban on multibuys could be unnecessary and over the top. In the oral evidence hearing with health minister Anne Milton, committee chair Stephen Dorrell asked: "The wine trade regularly sells wine by the case. Is that to be illegal in future?"
Milton did not have a clear answer on the topic, but said further evidence would emerge at consultation stage. Speaking at a press conference at Westminster last week, Dorrell said: "It doesn't convince us that a ban is desirable or ultimately workable."
"The deal represents everyone working together to come up with a pledge - a statement of intent. The committee's reaction could provoke an attitude of ‘why should we bother?' going forward. It's counter-productive. This is a genuine pledge making genuine progress," he said.
The government has a better grasp of the steps taken and how important they are. In her oral evidence session, Milton makes the point that wine, as an agricultural product, has to make extra special efforts to cut abv, whereas brewers and distillers can, in theory, more easily manipulate alcohol strength.
"I have heard ... from a wine producer that it [reducing abv] is quite complex because the people who produce the wine have to have the ability to work with the people growing the grapes."
Others say it was a case of political expediency on the day. Either way, the 1 billion units story has failed to impress the Health Committee.
Seeing the silver lining
"The Responsibility Deal is still in the early stages. The commitments are very significant, but we still have lots of work to do to deliver on these," he said.
The Portman Group is conducting an audit later this year to see how far companies have come on labels and what's visible on shelf. It has also set up an advisory service for companies who aren't sure if their labels meet the requirements.
On the unit reduction pledge, Ashworth said he was "disappointed the committee didn't really understand the scale of the pledge". He said the committee had a "very quick turnaround" and the deadline for collecting evidence was before most of the individual pledges had been announced.
He said the committee called "very few witnesses" and most were focused on areas other than the Responsibility Deal, meaning they "probably didn't have sufficient evidence to see the scale and significance" of
"There are 34 companies that have signed the collective pledge, but more can still join up," Ashworth said.
To prove it is delivering on the pledges, CGA and Nielsen are monitoring progress, while companies themselves in partnership with retailers, could carry out trials, he added.
Overall, Ashworth said the Health Select Committee's report was a "very significant step forward" in recognising the industry as willing partners. What happens now is that "we need to prove ourselves in those areas we can deliver on," he said.
He called on all companies involved in alcohol, both in the on and off-trade, to join up. "It's the cumulative effect, we can't just leave it to the big guys. This affects everybody. We need restaurants, bars and retailers, big and small, as well as producers and importers, to play their role. We must redouble our efforts."
How the trade responded
Alcohol education charity Drinkaware was criticised for a perceived lack of independence, given it is funded by drinks companies. But Derek Lewis, the group's chairman, said: "We share the Committee's view that Drinkaware's independence from the alcohol industry and other stakeholders is critical." A review is taking place later this year.
James Lousada, European general manager for Accolade Wines, "broadly welcomed" much of the report, but was disappointed with the committee's support of minimum pricing and its "prejudgement" on the effectiveness of the billion units pledge. "Delivering upon this pledge would certainly be doing more than "paying lip service to the need to reduce alcohol harms and we believe that the industry is already making good progress towards the target of one billion units by 2015".
Alcohol Concern's chief executive Eric Appleby welcomed the report, but criticised the alcohol industry, in particular the Responsibility
But the Advertising Association does not agree and said calls for more restrictions "don't add up". "We already know the suggested measures don't work. Eight years after its introduction, the French Parliament and anti-alcohol campaigners labelled Loi Evin ‘ineffective' and ‘weak' in reducing high-risk drinking."
The Committee of Advertising Practice added there are already strict, mandatory rules for alcohol advertising and said it would like to see the evidence on which the committee based its proposals.
You can join the Harpers Responsibility OK initiative and sign up to the Responsibility Deal at harpers.co.uk/responsibility-ok