Focus - Alcohol advertising safe in Tory hands

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The call last week by the British Medical Association (BMA) for an outright ban on alcohol advertising appeared to have little support in political circles or the media. Most crucially for the industry, it was rejected out of hand by the Conservative Party. With the Tories a racing certainty to take power in the next General Election, Ben Cooper casts an eye over Conservative thinking on alcohol policy.

Dismissing what the UK's senior doctors are saying on alcohol policy as an irrelevance would be a foolhardy step for the drinks industry to take, but it would be fair to say that the recent call by the British Medical Association (BMA) for an outright ban on alcohol advertising has not caused drinks marketers too many sleepless nights.

Quite simply, the industry knows this is not going to happen. And the reason it knows this is because the alcohol industry, like every other business sector in the UK, has been paying very close attention to what the Conservative Party has been saying in recent months.

Political pundits have long given up writing about 'if' the Tories win the General Election that will take place in the UK some time in the next nine months. The only imponderable is exactly when the Government will call the election and how large the Conservative landslide will be.

So what the Tories have to say is, by contrast, extremely relevant. And the news is on balance fairly good for the industry. To begin with the Tories are opposed to the BMA's blanket advertising ban.

In a speech to the British Association for the Study of the Liver, Shadow Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley said there was "no mistaking the urgency" of the warning in the BMA's Under the Influence report. According to the report, alcohol-related deaths have risen by 47% since 1997 and alcohol abuse costs the NHS GBP3bn a year.

"The need for action is clear," Lansley said. "But I don't believe that a blanket ban on alcohol advertising or minimum pricing proposals are the right ways to get to the root of this problem. Penalising the many who drink responsibly in order to constrain a minority will not succeed in tackling this complex challenge."

While welcome news for the industry, the Tories had already made their position clear on minimum pricing. Labour is also not in support of minimum alcohol pricing, though of course the Westminster Parliament would not be able to prevent minimum pricing being introduced in Scotland if measures set to be put before the Scottish Parliament are passed. In fact, the Liberal Democrats are the only party backing minimum pricing for England and Wales.

The economic cost of an outright advertising ban would probably have deterred Labour from going near that issue too.

Lansley's further remarks say rather more about the direction of Conservative policy on alcohol. "It's clear that Government, parents and retailers have taken too long to wake up to the scale of this problem." As well as apparently absolving brands from blame - brand advertising really is safe under the Tories - the specific mention of retailers is illuminating.

The rhetoric of the Conservative Party and Tory Leader David Cameron in recent months has underlined how the party's thinking on alcohol policy is more closely focused on licensing legislation. While banning advertising runs completely counter to Conservative values of supporting enterprise and minimising regulation, tighter licensing laws fit fairly happily with Conservative views on law and order and curbing anti-social behaviour.

To a degree, the rhetoric on this has emphasised better enforcement of existing police and local authority powers. One new measure the Tories plan to bring in is the introduction of a 'three strikes and you're out' policy for licensed premises found to be selling alcohol to under-18s. Under the measure, a third offence within three years would trigger automatic revocation of the licence and a fine.

Lansley said in his speech last week that there was "no doubt" that 24-hour drinking legislation had "severely undermined clinician and police efforts to get to grips with the problem of binge drinking". Mike Penning, Shadow Health Minister, addressing the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) Autumn Conference yesterday, said the Conservatives would repeal 24-hour licensing laws brought in under Labour.

This is an area of potential Tory policy which has naturally gone down less well with the WSTA. "Repealing it would be a mistake," WSTA spokesperson Gavin Partington told just-drinks. He said the laws in question were actually used in "remarkably few places and in many, many cases it's worked very successfully. "The last government study concluded that it was working very well," Partington said, adding that he did not believe repealing the legislation would achieve the Tories' intended objective of reducing excessive consumption.

On alcohol tax, the Tories are looking to take a targeted approach. Lansley said: "We want to see the alcohol duty system better targeted by increasing tax on drinks most associated with binge drinking - alcopops and super-strength beers and super-strength ciders."

So where does all this leave the BMA and its call for an outright advertising ban? Although there is support among other health organisations for a ban, there appears to be little public appetite for such a measure. Indeed, the BMA's call was not even backed by the UK's principal alcohol charity, Alcohol Concern.

A spokesperson for Alcohol Concern told just-drinks that it was not currently its policy to push for a total ban, though this was something it might revise in the next couple of years in the light of new evidence. But the spokesperson said there were elements in the BMA's proposals, such as the ban on sports and music sponsorship, which it "completely agreed with". 

Rather than pushing for an outright advertising ban, Alcohol Concern is lobbying for a watershed ban, which would see TV alcohol advertising banned before the 9pm watershed. At present, alcohol adverts can be screened during programming before 9pm which has a predominantly adult audience. However, campaigners have long maintained that this still means a large number of children are exposed to the adverts.

While it is clear that a total ban was never likely to fly, the question remains whether the call for a ban by such a prominent health organisation and the publication of the Under the Influence report has heightened pressure for a watershed ban, and for restrictions on sponsorship.

Meanwhile, when the Tories come to repeal 24-hour licensing, attention may be focused on the implications for the extended drinking hours currently enjoyed in two particular locations, namely the House of Commons and the BMA.

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