Coalition Govt keen for industry to take responsibility

Coalition Gov't keen for industry to take responsibility

The new UK coalition government has already announced plans to reform alcohol taxation and ban below-cost sales. But, as industry waits to hear its plans for alcohol labelling, recent remarks by health secretary Andrew Lansley on public health and the role industry has to play in health education will have been listened to acutely, writes Ben Cooper.

The drinks industry must have collectively grimaced at the depressing statistics on alcohol-related harm published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) earlier this month.

The figures on alcohol-related deaths and abusive consumption provide further evidence that the UK's drink-related problems are not abating. And the new government, just like its predecessors, is charged with doing something about it.

Conservative thinking on alcohol has tended to focus on law and order and licensing issues, and sure enough the new administration is planning an overhaul of the Licensing Act along with a ban on below-cost selling and reform of alcohol taxation, which given the continued problems around alcohol consumption and the straightened economic conditions seems likely to prompt a rise on the tax burden on alcohol.

While it has received less media coverage, the Government also faces a policy decision over alcohol labelling, which will fall under the remit of the Department of Health.

Interestingly, recent remarks by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley are indicative of a shift in the Conservative outlook on alcohol. In a speech to the Faculty of Public Health on 7 July, Lansley said: "Alcohol strategies have failed to go much beyond the public order issue. The approach has been confined to supply, with little impact on demand."

As it set out Lansley's vision for an enhanced focus on public health and an emphasis on preventive measures, notably with regard to obesity and alcohol harm, the speech was hugely relevant to both the food and alcohol industries.

While cutting the Change4Life social advertising campaign may seem an odd place to begin, Lansley stressed that his vision was less about major national ad campaigns and more about coordinated activity, involving a range of different government and non-government agencies, including commercial actors, in supporting the programme. He also said he would be expecting more direct financial support from companies, not merely "in kind contributions".

The new administration is also aiming to bring alcohol into the Change4Life programme. Engagement in the programme may be no bad thing for the drinks industry. While industry is being asked to contribute more financially, the changes announced by Lansley will arguably give it more direct involvement and a greater say in the campaign.

Such direct involvement would arguably be worth the investment for drinks companies. Involvement in public education and the encouragement of responsible consumption has tended to be positive for the drinks industry, both in terms of making a tangible contribution to tackling the problem but also in demonstrating to policymakers a commitment to social responsibility. The most recent example of this is the Drinkaware programme which has been in operation since 2008.

According to chief executive Chris Sorek, Drinkaware is now the UK's most recognised alcohol charity. "We're at 50% awareness in all adults across the country," Sorek tells just-drinks. The Drinkaware logo now appears on some 3 billion locations, whether that is labels on bottles or cans, posters or other ads, on an annual basis. The Drinkaware website had around 1.7m hits last year, and has achieved 1.3m in the first six months of this year alone. Sorek is forecasting over 2m for 2010.

With an annual budget of GBP5m, provided by industry, Drinkaware also funds research into drinking cultures and the relationship between alcohol and education. While Sorek acknowledges that there is "some value to supporting Drinkaware for the industry", he contends that its value to the overall challenge of combating alcohol-related harm is recognised by government and non-government agencies.

While campaigners are wary about industry involvement in public health messaging, Sorek stresses that the industry funds but does not determine Drinkaware activities. Its campaigns are guided by "well-evidenced social marketing principles," he says. "The goal is behaviour change, and that's the reason why we're doing research on alcohol and education and the drinking cultures."

That aspiration certainly appears in tune with Lansley's view that public health efforts have "to change behaviour, and change people's relationships with each other and with drugs, alcohol, tobacco and food".

Indeed, the work of the Drinkaware Trust is directly relevant to the Department of Health's deliberations over alcohol labelling. A consultation was launched in February and, having been slightly extended as a result of the General Election, has now closed. It offers three alternative courses of action: to continue under the existing voluntary agreement; to agree a strengthened self-regulatory agreement with industry; or to introduce mandatory measures under the 1990 Food Safety Act.

In opening the consultation, the DH stated it was not satisfied with the progress on alcohol labelling against the 2007 voluntary agreement between industry and the DH.

The DH had said it expected the majority (at least 50%) of labels (estimated by market share) to include five defined elements of information by the end of 2008. These five elements were: the drink's unit content; the official recommended lower-risk drinking guidelines; reference to Drinkaware; a message such as 'Know Your Limits' or 'Enjoy Responsibly' or 'Drink Responsibly'; and an alcohol in pregnancy warning.

The Department of Health commissioned survey research by Campden BRI in both 2008 and 2009 to measure the progress of voluntary implementation across the five criteria. Campden concluded in its report that in March/April 2009 the level of full compliance with the voluntary labelling agreement was "modest". The research found only 9.2% compliance across all five criteria in 2009.

Interestingly, one criterion with consistently high scores was implementation of Drinkaware branding on labelling, which rose from 46.3% in 2008 to 57.9% in 2009.

While industry groups said the Campden figures had underestimated the level of compliance overall, they acknowledged that more needed to be done. Contained within the submission to the consultation by a coalition of industry groups, including the British Beer and Pub Association and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, is an undertaking that by 2012 the industry will have achieved 81% compliance in volume terms with the three core elements now stipulated by the DH, namely unit content, the UK Chief Medical Officers' guidelines on daily limits for lower risk regular consumption; and the Chief Medical Officers' advice on alcohol and pregnancy.

This goes well beyond the desired target the DH has itself set that the majority (at least 50%) of the market be covered by 2012 and the "vast majority", at least 75%, by 2014.

Meanwhile, the Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition of medical organisations and alcohol charities, has called for the third option of mandatory regulation. However, industry sources appear sanguine about the prospects for being given more time to implement the changes in alcohol labelling on a voluntary basis.

While it is clear from other remarks that Andrew Lansley takes a positive view of self-regulation, the work of Drinkaware will certainly have done the industry no harm in making the case for a voluntary approach.

For more on the alcohol policy in the UK, click here.