Given the escalating problems of alcohol misuse, the drinks industry was awaiting the UK government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England with some trepidation. But with its emphasis on partnership and cooperation with industry, the strategy document published yesterday has given drinks suppliers and retailers a further chance to participate in tackling the problems. Ben Cooper reports.

The long-awaited UK government strategy on reducing alcohol-related harm was published yesterday. And while a government document dealing with the problems alcohol causes rarely makes comfortable reading for the drinks industry, it will have been relieved that the report focuses on what is expected from the industry in terms of co-operation and self-regulation, rather than detailing new legislation.

It is little surprise that the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England is a substantial tome. It has been a long time in coming, having been first discussed relatively early in the first term of the Blair government. Since then, public and political concern over the negative social and health effects of alcohol misuse has only heightened.

The Government puts the total cost of alcohol misuse, including additional health expenditure, crime and lost working days, at some £20 billion a year. The report states that around 6m people will have drunk more than twice the recommended daily guidelines in the past week, and around 8m people above the former recommended weekly guidelines. While alcohol consumption is falling in many countries, UK alcohol consumption is rising. However, in spite of these worrying facts, the political response has not been to opt for zealous regulation.

In fact, the strategy recognises the social benefits of sensible drinking and the health benefits of moderate consumption, and acknowledges that for the responsible majority, drinking is a social pleasure which should not be penalised.

The emphasis on co-operation with industry is mirrored by the importance the strategy places on personal responsibility. It states: "The direction set out in this strategy is based on a detailed analysis of the key issues and the current situation. It is intended to provide a strong base for where Government should intervene and lead, whilst recognising that responsibility for alcohol misuse cannot rest with Government alone. Importantly, the strategy sets out a new cross-government approach that relies on creating a partnership at both national and local levels between government, the drinks industry, health and police services, and individuals and communities to tackle alcohol misuse."

The industry-funded social aspects organisation, The Portman Group, which in addition to carrying out a host of self-regulatory and educational initiatives, has become a key voice for the drinks industry on matters of alcohol policy, welcomed the inclusive nature of strategy document. "There are serious and growing problems of alcohol misuse and the industry must continue to play its part in tackling these," said The Portman Group's chief executive, Jean Coussins. "I am pleased that the Government has recognised that it can build on the good practice already in place amongst leading companies within the industry. The industry must do even more to deliver against the tough targets set out in the strategy, or face Government action."

However, the strategy document has been criticised by some academics and public health groups for not being sufficiently tough with the drinks industry and for re-cycling existing self-regulatory initiatives rather than coming up with new policy ideas. Some also believe that there is an over-emphasis on industry-led initiatives and that the government has been too greatly influenced by industry sensibilities.

"Basically, it is a list of excuses for not doing anything," Andrew McNeil, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, told Just-drinks. "It's a recycling of what is already happening and describing it as if it is new. It is clear that the dominant influence on the government is the industry and the industry organisations. That is clear not just in what happened yesterday but also in the way the Licensing Act was handled and the policy on drink-driving."

But non-industry groups, notably the alcohol abuse charity, Alcohol Concern, viewed the emphasis on self-regulation as a challenge to the industry to participate fully and effectively in tackling the problems which alcohol misuse creates.

"Ministers deserve praise for tackling an issue that has proved too hot to handle for governments in the past - and we very much welcome many of the initiatives outlined in the strategy," said Alcohol Concern chief executive, Eric Appleby. "We shall also be expecting a rapid response from the drinks trade in living up to their obligations when it comes to issues such as happy hours and other drinks promotions. Indeed we'd go even further by introducing a 3%-5% levy on the alcohol industry's £200m annual advertising spend - to be fed back into health campaigns on alcohol."

While such a levy is not detailed in the strategy, in the section on industry partnership the strategy document does call for drinks companies to make a financial contribution to fund schemes which tackle alcohol misuse.

In addition to co-operation with the private sector, the strategy represents the first attempt to launch a coordinated approach to dealing with alcohol-related harm across all government departments.

The strategy isolates two groups of drinkers of particular concern, binge drinkers and chronic drinkers, which are empirically defined. Many of the measures included in the strategy are related to crime and disorder or health interventions directed fairly specifically at these two particular groups.

There are effectively four areas of emphasis within the strategy: improved and better-targeted education and communication;
better identification and treatment of alcohol-related health and social problems; better co-ordination and enforcement of existing powers against crime and disorder; encouraging the industry to continue promoting responsible drinking and to continue to take a role in reducing alcohol-related harm.

Regarding better education and communication, considerable weight is clearly attached to industry co-operation. The strategy calls for the sensible drinking message to be easier to understand and apply; messages to be targeted to at-risk groups including binge and chronic drinkers; better information for consumers on products and at point of sale; alcohol education in schools; more support and advice for employers; a review of the code of practice for TV advertising to be carried out by the regulator, Ofcom, to ensure that it does not target young drinkers or glamorise irresponsible behaviour.

Secondly, it details a raft of measures aimed at improving health and treatment services. In the third area of focus, a series of interventions aimed at combating alcohol-related crime and disorder, the government is clearly calling for a greater degree of industry self-regulation than hitherto seen.

The strategy calls for licensees and local authorities to work in partnership to ensure better enforcement of existing rules on underage drinking and serving people who are drunk. There are also to be other industry-partnered programmes aimed at reducing anti-social behaviours. In addition to the wider application of exclusion orders and fixed penalties for public disorder offences, code of good conduct schemes for alcohol retailers are to be set up at local level, as part of the measure to tackle alcohol-related disorder, under-age drinking and binge-drinking.

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In fact, the area of co-operation with and self-regulation within the drinks industry is seen as so central to the strategy that it is detailed as a key element within the strategy document in its own right. The strategy calls for a social responsibility charter for drinks manufacturers. Covered in this charter will be areas such as responsible production, with companies asked to pledge not to manufacture products that appeal to under-age drinkers or encourage excessive consumption and ensure that their advertising does not do likewise. Drinks companies will be asked to put sensible drinking messages on bottles along with details of unit content of alcohol. They will also be asked to move to safer packaging materials. Lastly, the charter will call for drinks companies to make a financial contribution to fund schemes which tackle alcohol misuse.

As with other measures included in the strategy, the effectiveness of these voluntary programmes will be assessed during the course of the next Parliament and the report was quite specific in stating that if they were not proving effective, additional steps, including legislation, would be considered. The whole strategy itself is being assessed and its progress is to be reviewed in 2007.

The emphasis being placed on partnership with industry and industry-led initiatives will be welcomed by drinks companies, as will be the line taken towards the more traditional forms of legislative intervention, fiscal policy and licensing.

While some lobby groups have simply called for alcohol to be made more expensive by increasing taxation and have called for policies relaxing licensing laws to be reversed, the strategy appears to reject both of these policies.

"There is a clear association between price, availability and consumption," the strategy document states. "But there is less sound evidence for the impact of introducing specific policies in a particular social and political context. So we believe that a more effective measure would be to provide the industry with further opportunities to work in partnership with the government to reduce alcohol-related harm. Every consumer of alcohol has contact with the industry in one form or another. By contrast, only a small proportion of consumers will come into contact with government services because of their consumption."

In a table of respective responsibilities, the strategy states that the industry is expected to give accurate information about the products it sells and warning about the consequences, supply its products in a way that minimises harm and work with national and local agencies to tackle alcohol-related harms. But the strategy document also specifies that in the return the industry can expect: "fair regulation consistent with these responsibilities and the provision of services for which it pays through business rates and taxes".

Comforting words indeed but while the industry may be breathing a collective sigh of relief it would be wise to take the recommendations in this report extremely seriously.

The Blair administration has always had to battle with the conflict created by its fervent desire to be a friend of industry and its slightly paternalistic tendencies. Accusations of "Nanny State-ism" have been rife since 1997 but the tenor of this report suggests that it has held its regulatory instincts at bay.

However, while some of the voluntary measures are new, other self-regulatory initiatives have been in existence for some time and, given that the problems have worsened, will be said by many to have been ineffective. What this strategy seems to add to the equation is a clear statement by government that voluntary schemes and industry cooperation are to be monitored and assessed, with 2007 set as a firm date for appraisal, and that regulation could follow if these strategies do not work.

Some lobby groups will view the lack of legislative intervention as weakness on the part of government and no doubt some of the more cynical players within the industry will view it as licence to continue to sail close to the wind. They both cast the government in the role of the weak and desperate schoolteacher saying, "This is absolutely your last chance" to the most recalcitrant and recidivistic naughty pupil. But for the industry at large to consider that it dodged a bullet yesterday would surely be unwise because 2007 is not all that far away and if things do not improve, the Government could allow its more Nanny-ish tendencies to come to the fore.