Govt outlines alcohol policy

Gov't outlines alcohol policy

Fresh restrictions on the supply of alcohol are inevitable as the UK Coalition Government attempts to curb the burden of excess drinking on the country's health system.

Government minister Anne Milton left no doubt yesterday (8 July) that the Government "will take action on pricing" as it seeks to tackle alcohol-related health problems and late-night disorder on the country's high streets. 

"We will restore the balance between responsible pricing and the interests of the community," said Milton, who is parliamentary under secretary of state for public health.

"People always underestimate their own consumption and for too many of us that is proving lethal," she told a conference on alcohol and public health in London.

The Government will publish a review of taxation and pricing in the Autumn as part of bold plans to cut consumption. It intends to hit retailers by introducing a ban in some form or other on below-cost sales, possibly tax spirits more harshly than beer, introduce new labelling rules, get tougher on those selling drink to minors and restrict the number of venues that sell alcohol, as well as the times it can be sold.
Those in the industry who continue to resist further restrictions on drinks sales would be better off deciding which ones they are prepared to accept.

Alcohol misuse costs the health service GBP2.7bn (US$4.01bn) annually and drink is responsible for 70% of admissions to hospitals' accident and emergency departments at peak times. Too many senior health professionals to ignore are warning that the UK is sitting on a ticking time bomb with at least 10m adults regularly drinking more than is good for them.

From a purely financial point of view, this makes the problem too large for the Government to ignore - particularly with a national spending deficit the size of a small planet swinging around our necks.

It seems the Government has taken a history lesson from the 18th Century gin craze in London, when authorities snuffed out consumption by restricting licenses to only the largest retailers and suppliers, as well as hiking tax.

Yet, what is more positive in all this for drinks producers is that, alongside the clear intent to legislate, the new administration is making promising noises about personal responsibility and the need for a long-term strategy to change behaviour towards alcohol.

"You cannot responsibly reduce alcohol harm by tackling supply alone, we must do something about demand as well," said Milton. "We are looking actively at the question of motivation," she said. "We cannot frog-march people out of the off-licences".

Milton also moved to put clear water between alcohol and smoking policy, which will sweeten the mood at the likes of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. "We want people to stop smoking, end of," she said. "We want people to reduce their alcohol consumption, which is slightly different and so the policy levers won't be the same."

However, the Government remains vague on its plans for what the policy boffins call "behavioural change". Milton spoke of "helping people make the right decisions about their health" - the right decisions presumably being the ones that Ministers want people to make.

She focused particularly on young people, ending with a woolly statement on helping them to "develop the skills to make difficult choices". Breaking the power of peer pressure, if that's what this last statement refers to, might turn out to be a wild goose chase, but at least we are getting the taste of a more balanced approach.

Generally, Milton said the Government wanted "to create a large space for health information".

Private funding for alcohol education projects could be a key theme with this new Government. Firstly, there is no money left in the pot and, secondly, the administration is keen for the private sector and community leaders to take more active responsibility in all areas of the state. You'll notice that these two factors dovetail quite nicely together.

The Government has frozen marketing spend at its Central Office of Information (which deals chiefly in behaviour change - this is not an Orwell novel) via hard-hitting advertising campaigns. Alongside this, we are starting to hear noises to the effect that Government advertising is not actually that effective in changing behaviour.

Advertisers' trade body ISBA, which represents both industry and Government departments, agrees on this. "Messages from companies are likely to be more effective than ones that come from the Government," said ISBA's director of public affairs, Ian Twinn, at yesterday's conference. 

We can expect, then, industry to be asked to foot the bill for more responsible drinking initiatives in the next few years, whether that's via direct funding or higher tax.

Better to be on the inside looking out, surely?