The Public Health Responsibility Deal, unveiled by the UK government today, underlines its commitment to voluntary company-led measures to tackle alcohol-related problems. However, Ben Cooper believes industry should not see this as a victory in itself. The actions themselves have to deliver.

Over the past week or so the drinks industry has been given a glimpse of one possible future. The UK government is to implement a ban on displaying cigarettes in supermarkets from April next year (with smaller stores following suit in 2015). Such bans are already in place in other countries including Canada, Ireland, Iceland and Finland 

There has also been widespread discussion in the UK of cigarettes being forced to be sold in plain packaging, though Government support for the move has been lukewarm. However, the idea is not so far-fetched. Australia plans to introduce just such a stipulation in 2012.

Could such measures ever be seen for alcohol? The drinks industry has long fretted about its products becoming subject to the same strictures seen on cigarettes. However, recent events in the UK suggest alcohol is still being viewed very differently by policymakers.

Indeed, alcohol manufacturers and retailers are arguably facing the most industry-friendly government approach for many years, epitomised in the Public Health Responsibility Deal, launched today (15 March).

According to the Department of Health, prominent drink producers and retailers have pledged to provide clear unit labelling, support awareness campaigns and develop a new sponsorship code on responsible drinking.

Alcohol companies have been vocal in their support for the collaborative approach and quick to announce initiatives. Heineken has said it would cut the alcohol content of its Strongbow cider, and place information about alcohol units on all its branded glasses, while supermarket chain Asda has pledged to remove front-of-store alcohol displays.

Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), hailed the Responsibility Deal as “a positive step in a partnership process designed to ensure that consumers have the information they need to make informed choices” and looked forward to “making further progress”.

Beadles also said the industry is committed to playing its part “alongside other stakeholders” in tackling alcohol misuse. This is a somewhat curious contention given that yesterday six prominent health groups withdrew their support for the Public Health Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (RDAN), criticising the level of industry influence and the lack of effective action.

The Government’s intention has been to put in place a framework for a collaborative approach to tackling the problem. Without the support of organisations such as Alcohol Concern and the British Medical Association, it is arguably nothing of the sort and will be seen far more as a pact between industry and government.

The six organisations have not disengaged entirely. They have said they remain “completely open to dialogue with the government” and “prepared to continue to engage in discussions about how industry can act as responsible producers, distributors and promoters of alcohol”. But, they said alcohol policy should be guided by public health interests and the best available evidence, “not influenced by competing commercial interests”.

So, they have, to all intents and purposes, washed their hands of the Responsibility Deal in its current form. While industry may view government as its crucial partner, the loss of even qualified support from these organisations is extremely significant. Scepticism among campaigners towards industry initiatives will harden and public criticism from prominent and highly qualified medical academics is likely to increase.

It is ironic, given the amount of effort the industry has put into tackling alcohol misuse, that the relationship between campaigners and the industry is at such a nadir. The alcohol market is unrecognisable from 20 years ago with the presence today of countless industry-sponsored responsibility initiatives. Yet, campaigners are more sceptical and hostile to the industry than in times when companies did nothing whatsoever to temper the adverse effects of their products. With the launch of the RDAN, the onus on corporate responsibility has never been greater. 

However, while the industry has managed to secure a permissive approach, to view this as a victory over campaigners would be a mistake. To see the withdrawal of support by the six medical organisations as anything other than a blow to the fledgling Responsibility Deal would be an even worse misjudgement.

Their withdrawal has upped the ante. Industry has to show that a policy approach so closely allied to self-governed corporate responsibility can work, while these sceptical and highly respected erstwhile potential partners look on from outside.

Another miscalculation the industry could make would be to see this debate exclusively in terms of self-determination. Industry’s raison d’etre cannot simply be to maintain control over its own destiny in the way that the RDAN appears to allow. The actions themselves have to deliver.

The six health organisations, among them people who have studied the problems of alcohol misuse for decades, believe the pledges made so far by industry will not make any appreciable difference. That should at least be a worry.

Clearly, for many public health campaigners, the very involvement of companies, which they maintain have a first duty to their shareholders and the profit motive and are therefore unacceptably subject to a prejudicial interest, is a problem. But they are not necessarily against some industry-led action.

Dr Nick Sheron of the British Association for the Study of the Liver (BASL) calls for, among other things, “meaningful reductions” in the average alcohol level of certain alcoholic drinks and for industry to cease lobbying against health policy initiatives such as the current initiative on labelling in the EU. He says “unfortunately, the RDAN agenda has been set entirely by the drinks industry”, and an opportunity has been “squandered”. He adds: “Were a better and more equitable structure to be established, then BASL would consider again whether this was something where our expertise would be of use.”

In other words, industry has taken at least partial responsibility for an agenda which in the eyes of many will not work. The success of such measures can only be fairly appraised over years, but the efficacy of the Government’s approach will be judged on a more or less daily basis in the media. The Government may take the lion’s share of the blame if the Responsibility Deal is seen not to work but association with an ineffectual and failing policy would also do the industry few favours.