Drink firms’ efforts to fight alcohol abuse ‘have not worked’
Scathing independent report claims four-year ‘responsibility deal’ between government and drinks industry has harmed public health
Source: The Guardian
Denis Campbell Health Policy Editor
7 November 2015
Reliance on voluntary action by alcohol firms to tackle drink-related harm has been a failure, a hard-hitting report warns. The “public health responsibility deal” unveiled during the last government has resulted in broken promises and too little being done to reduce problems such as underage drinking, the report concludes.
The scathing assessment by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) states: “[The responsibility deal] appears to have been the main element of the UK’s alcohol strategy in recent years and has been used by the industry to resist more effective policies. If this is the case, the responsibility deal has worsened the health of the nation, and so must be considered a failure.”
The break with decades of regulation began under then coalition health secretary Andrew Lansley in 2011. He hailed it as a groundbreaking public-private partnership that would reduce alcohol problems. But the IAS, a non-industry-funded thinktank, found that, under the deal, drinks producers have shunned policies that would work but would also hit their sales, promoted approaches that do not work, and exaggerated how much difference the policies they have adopted have actually made.
“The RD has systematically focused on relatively ineffective interventions that are unlikely to reduce alcohol consumption. It has set up its pledges in ambiguous terms that resist assessment,” says the report. “The alcohol industry has obstructed rigorous evaluation of the RD, through the unreliability of its progress reports, and more damningly through its misconduct in the official evaluation process.”
Katherine Brown, IAS director and one of the report’s authors, said that both hospital admissions and deaths due to alcohol had continued to rise, in spite of overall alcohol consumption falling slightly. “Perhaps most worryingly, the report indicates that the deal may have delayed evidence-based actions that would save lives and cut crime, such as minimum pricing. To call this a ‘public health responsibility deal’ for alcohol is laughable, as almost every independent public health body has boycotted it.”
The RD’s failure meant it would be “absurd for this government to continue with such a farcical initiative. With alcohol costing our society £21bn each year, we can’t afford to keep prioritising the needs of big business over public health,” she added.
The report claims there is no evidence that a key industry pledge – improving the labelling of cans and bottles to include drinking guidelines, warning labels and unit alcohol content – is working.
Recent Department of Health-funded research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that firms involved in the RD “are not fully meeting their commitments” on labelling, and that “labelling information frequently falls short of best practice, with fonts and logos smaller than would be accepted on other products with health effects”.
The report does praise drinks firms for agreeing to stop advertising within 100 metres of schools. It also hails genuine “progress” on the number of alcohol products carrying warnings about drinking during pregnancy, safe drinking guidelines and the number of units contained.
The Portman Group, an industry-funded body, criticised the report for “taking no account of official government data showing the achievements of the Responsibility Deal and repeating previous claims which we have already told the IAS are factually incorrect”.
“By working in partnership with government, drinks producers and retailers have taken 1.3 billion units of alcohol out of the market, limited the number of units of alcohol in single-serve cans, and voluntarily labelled 80% of products with important health information, and over 90% with a warning about drinking when pregnant,” a spokeswoman said.
Since 2010 there has been a 24% drop in alcohol-related violent incidents and 13% fall in the number of 11-13-year-olds who have ever had a drink, she added.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Under the Responsibility Deal we have seen over a billion units of alcohol removed from the market, through improving consumer choice of lower alcohol products, and nearly 93% of all alcohol products now carrying drinking in pregnancy warnings.
“More importantly, we have seen the number of people drinking above the current guidelines in England fall over recent years. However, we also recognise that more needs to be done, and we will continue to challenge industry to go further.”