Tackling alcohol misuse effectively

12 Aug 2014

Over the weekend I read with interest the 2015 manifesto from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse (APPG) at Westminster which has received widespread media coverage.   It is right that all of us involved in the drinks industry should take seriously every contribution to this debate and reflect on the points made.  We all share the same objective, of reducing alcohol-related harm, and - I hope - we all want to find the most effective ways of doing so. 

That's why getting the context right for this debate is important.  We agree of course that misuse of alcohol causes significant harm to individuals and to society, and that we all have a responsibility to help tackle that.  Nevertheless some important facts are missing from the APPG's manifesto.  Alcohol consumption across the UK is in fact down by almost a fifth over the last decade; deaths due to alcohol have been falling since 2008 and are now back to levels last seen in 2002; and alcohol-related crime has fallen by nearly a third over the same period.  These figures are still too high, but it's important to recognise they are moving in the right direction and consistently so. 

With that in mind, there is a lot we at the SWA can agree with in the APPG manifesto.  Increased funding, better training, prioritisation of brief advice interventions, and sobriety orders all make complete sense and have been shown to have an impact on problem drinking.  Indeed the drinks industry itself supports a number of such measures. We also believe that alcohol is best avoided before driving, so whether the drink drive limit should be reduced is, we believe, a matter of broader public policy.

Some other measures are perhaps more complex than the APPG allows.  A single minister responsible for alcohol-related harm sounds attractive, but in reality almost nowhere in government is there a single minister responsible for any single thing.  Most public policy issues involve balancing one issue against another and necessarily involve more than one minister or department.   For example, in this case, the Home Office would still remain responsible for fighting crime and would have an interest in the consequences for that of alcohol policy.  HMRC would still be responsible for dealing with illicit alcohol and evasion of excise duty, trends which would foreseeably grow if the price of alcohol increased.  Any government has to balance all these objectives and having a single minister would not change that fact. 

The APPG argues for stronger regulation of alcohol marketing and sponsorship. In fact a closer reading of their proposal suggests that they are not in fact advocating tougher rules, merely that the Government, as opposed to industry, should enforce them.  It is not obvious what is gained by this.  Through self-regulation, the industry has shown itself to be quick and flexible in implementing changes, while doing everything the Government has asked of it.  Government regulation is always there as a back-up if the industry ever behaves irresponsibly; but since we do not there is no need to require legislative enforcement. 

The proposal that has attracted most attention is the suggestion that health warnings should be required on labels.  In fact, 80% of labels already have such a health warning, if by that is meant a reminder of the unit content, the recommended unit guidelines, and the warning about consumption during pregnancy.  This is consistent with the best current medical advice.  Of course, a further public health campaign, as the manifesto suggests, could certainly help to reinforce all these messages further.  But there is a fundamental difference between tobacco and alcohol, which is that alcohol, when consumed responsibly and in moderation, can be part of a normal healthy lifestyle.

Finally, the manifesto repeats the call for minimum unit pricing of alcohol.  Our views on that are no doubt well known: they can be found here.  

Overall there is room to have a discussion on the APPG's views.  We don't agree with everything they propose.  But we agree with more of it than you might think if you don't follow this debate closely.  And, although our views differ on some of the means, we agree on the ends - reducing the harm done by alcohol.  I hope we could all unite around that.

David Frost, Scotch Whisky Association chief executive