COMMENT: Action not reaction in UK
By Chris Losh | 23 August 2007
Anti-social behaviour linked to alcohol abuse has once again grabbed the headlines in the UK. But Chris Losh believes that, while the industry has made great strides with regard to social responsibility, the Government has been more focused on courting public opinion than on finding long-term solutions to serious health and social problems.
Barely a month goes by it seems without the drinks industry in the UK coming under fire. There's no shortage of moralising politicians or concerned pressure groups prepared to cite alcohol as the cause of everything from national obesity to street violence, and the press are happy to keep reporting it.
The latest example occurred last week, when a homeowner went out of his house to confront a group of drunken teenagers who were vandalising his car. The three men turned on the man, beat him senseless and he later died.
It was obviously an utterly senseless assault and a terribly sad story. But did it really need the local police chief to go on the record and claim that the legal drinking age should be raised from 18 to 21? It was the kind of knee-jerk reaction that is much loved by Middle England and the tabloid press, but which falls some way short of being a constructive contribution to the debate.
And there is, of course, a debate worth having here. According to the pressure group Alcohol Concern, drink is behind 50% of all violent crime and 60% of all child protection cases. It is clearly a serious issue.
But it's also one that the industry has begun to address. Ten years ago, the country was drowning in alcopops and mired in the whole 'marketing to minors' issue. There's no way on earth that such cavalier marketing could happen now. The Portman Group - the industry's self-policing watchdog - has proved itself to have real teeth, and the big drinks companies have genuinely bought into the idea of corporate social responsibility.
It would, of course, be naïve to imagine that this volte face has been entirely driven by altruism; there's a fair dollop of self-interest in there as well. There's a real feeling among British drinks producers that now the Government has dealt with smoking, drink could be next on its radar. "Be seen to be doing your bit," runs the thinking, "and you'll avoid heavy-handed legislation."
The irony is that in all the efforts of the last ten years to get its house in order, the industry has been hampered by the very people it is attempting to appease. The Labour Party did little on this issue for the first six years it was in power, and has, until recently, tended to concentrate on the headline-grabbing problems of drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour, rather than health related issues.
More recently, however, that has changed. Indeed, rather than targeting underage drinkers, there have been reports citing the health problems caused by over-consumption of both older people and (previously ignored) middle class Pinot Grigio bingers.
Part of the problem here is simply that the public do not understand units of alcohol in wine. The Government guideline (that one unit equals a 125ml glass of 10% abv wine) is hopelessly irrelevant, given that most serves are now 175ml or 250ml and most wines are at least 13% abv. Women might have it in their head that two glasses of wine keeps them under their Safe Drinking two-unit limit; but two large glasses of Zinfandel could mean over half a bottle of 15% abv plonk - nearer six units than two, which officially makes them binge drinkers, albeit probably accidental ones.
And whose responsibility is it to sort this out? As one industry source put it, "One of our commitments as an industry is to provide people with adequate information to help them make sensible decisions. But we can't do that on our own - we have to work with the Government."
That the latter's 'know your limits' campaign came out independently, at the same time, and totally to the surprise of the drinks industry, who had just launched their own 'Drink Aware' campaign, tells you much about the one-sided nature of communication between the two sides.
Happily, there are signs that health, rather than behavioural issues are now the focus in Whitehall, but there are still two areas they could address straightaway.
The first is to relax restrictions on the size of wine serves permitted in the on-trade. Currently, these consist of 125ml glass, 175ml or multiples thereof, which are too inflexible and encourage enormous measures. Recently we had the nonsense of Selfridge's having to close its rather excellent self-service 'wine jukebox', where the public chose the size of whatever wine they fancied and paid accordingly, because it offered illegally-sized (smaller) measures. How inconsistent is that - to permit people to buy one third of a bottle in one glass, but rule out small sample measures?
The other area to address is that of underage drinking which is more a retail issue than a drinks industry one, and something which compulsory, rather than voluntary, age verification cards would do much to remedy.
Alas, in this area as in so many, the Government has preferred eye-catching tabloid-friendly criticism over actual action. Drinking is, indeed, all about responsibility - and it's time that our elected representatives stopped blaming everyone else and took some on themselves.
Companies: The Portman Group
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