CBC - If you ask me... UK Alcohol Harm
Alcohol harm is back at the top of the media agenda this week - is it ever away for long?
The Alcohol Health Alliance, a newly-formed association of 24 leading health organisations in the UK, is calling for an increase in taxes, health warnings on drinks and advertising restrictions.
The latest statistic to be used by the anti-alcohol lobby to galvanise media reaction against the drinks industry is that 13 children are admitted to hospital every day as a result of the UK's growing alcohol misuse.
Ministers, as you would imagine when confronted with such an emotive set of statistics, are responding by making noises that something must be done.
The Alliance is calling for the government to adopt a twin strategy of increasing tax and reducing the easy availability of alcohol. The Alliance says increasing tax by 10% could cut all alcohol-related deaths by between 10% and 30%. At present the number of alcohol-related deaths has more than doubled from 4,144 in 1991 to 8,386 in 2005.
The industry will, of course, fight back on this issue, but it also realises that it needs to tread extremely carefully.
That said, it also could be time to go on a PR offensive. There seems to me to be an unwillingness - understandably given the political climate - to talk of the progress the industry has made in combating alcohol-related harm. Millions has been spent on responsible drinking messages, which have far more gravitas and weight than potential messages force fed to us by a nanny state.
Is it time also to ask how the surging figures for alcohol-related disease and harm are reconciled with the fact that the UK is a nation that drinks less every year? No one in the anti-alcohol lobby will want to hear those statistics and I suspect few in the industry will want to champion them either, but to what extent is the increase in alcohol harm, or the burden on the National Health Service attributed to drink, an effect of our ability to diagnose better?
The Alcohol Health Alliance has called on the government to no longer rely on voluntary agreements with the alcohol industry to curb potentially harmful practices. If the industry is cut out of the loop to this extent the future will be bleak indeed. It may be, therefore, a time for a bolder approach.
Those that have read this column before may be a little surprised by this rhetoric as I have always argued that the industry has a case to answer. So before you jump to the conclusion that I have been converted to the ranks of radical free-market thinkers, let me qualify what I have been saying a little.
Do I believe that alcohol is too readily available? Yes I do. Do I believe that when you can walk into a supermarket and purchase 20 cans of lager for GBP12 or a 70cl bottled of Scotch for GBP7 that alcohol is too cheap? Yes I do. But is raising taxes even further or greater governmental interference really the answer? No, I don't think it is.
The industry has made great strides forward in this matter but it should be encouraged to go further rather than cut out the loop. Surely there are other levers to pull in order to see prices rise? There can be few stakeholders in this debate who would benefit more from a general rise in prices than producers of alcohol, but competition laws are so strict these days that the subject can barely be debated at industry events much less addressed.
Furthermore, the Government is always keen to wag a finger at drinks producers but the all powerful retail lobby seems to avoid taking much blame. And yet, it is the major retailers that continue to drive discounting and call for ever-cheaper drinks on shelves to drive footfall.
As for the producer themselves, if they are to go on the offensive and trumpet the successes they have had so far, then such a move should be allied to a truly pan-industry plan of action to move the self-regulation agenda even further forward. The model of advertising self-regulation employed by DISCUS in the US has been a huge success, both in practical terms and in garnering support for the drinks industry's cause - something similarly powerful must be found in the UK.
Meanwhile the resolve must be found to confront the problem of retail pricing. For years we have heard how it has destroyed value in the category, particularly around Christmas. But if prices don't move north soon, the implications are going to be far further reaching than just value.
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