Comment - England's alcohol strategy review

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This week's announcement by UK legislators of the latest plan to tackle alcohol abuse in England is the clearest sign yet that the Government is ready to tackle the problem head-on, regardless of the impact on the industry. The news should have sent shudders down the backs of drinks industry executives everywhere - in particular an ill-prepared wine industry.

I remember sitting in on the opening address of the World Whiskies Conference (WWC) two years ago, listening to a tobacco executive try and convince the room that he saw dangerous parallels between the then position of the drinks industry and tobacco a decade earlier. I go the distinct feeling that the spirits executives present saw this particular presentation as, at best, an amusing diversion from the business of learning about how to sell more alcohol at higher prices.

In particular, the tobacco man pulled out a bottle of gin with a home-made warning label plastered to the front and back of the bottle. The tool was a crude one, but he was trying to make the point that this was where our industry was heading if current government thinking prevailed. The room humoured him with polite laughter and talk after the presentation predictably included the old adage that the drinks industry is not the cigarette industry.

And yet, lo and behold, here we are. The national strategy not only suggests clearer labelling of calorie content of alcohol, as a further disincentive to heavy drinking, but the Government also announced this week that alcoholic drinks would carry warning labels from 2008, spelling out the number of units contained.

This move by the government shifts the focus of the debate slightly - away from the anti-social effects of alcohol and further onto the issue of health. With terms such as 'wellness' in vogue at the moment it's a shrewd change of tack that could attract more attention from the general population as a whole. After all, almost everyone is interested in their own health.

The question remains, however, quite how the Government intends to now move forward. And a quote by Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians should now act as a warning not to be ignored.

"We know from international evidence that it's measures that tackle price and availability where one can really make a difference. There is a very clear link between price and consumption. It's never been cheaper in real terms than it is now," he said.

In the defence of the drinks industry, some of the moves outlined are as part of a voluntary agreement with the sector. The attitudes towards the need to be more proactive in this debate and the acceptance of the threat alcohol abuse poses drinks companies have moved on considerably in the last two years across the board - well, almost.

Since that day in Glasgow at the WWC, as we have watched alcohol abuse take centre stage in the everyday media, I have attended four large wine industry conferences. The issue of alcohol abuse was at times mentioned in passing, but most of the time ignored altogether.

The wine industry, I believe, has thought itself above this debate. Binge drinking, the thinking seemed to go, was the problem of the beer, spirits and shots companies. After all, how many drunk teenagers on the streets of provincial England were captured on film clutching bottles of Chateau Lafitte? Indeed, how many were even seen clutching bottles of Blossom Hill?

Wine has also very successfully allied itself to the issue of health. The French paradox has given wine a tremendous image boost in the past, as beer and spirits attracted negative press for perceived associations with ill-health.

To a certain degree, public perception of the wine industry has mirrored the industry's own views on its basic characteristics. 'Cultured', 'refined', 'relaxing', 'quality' and even 'healthy' are phrases that ping around focus groups the world over as wine brand managers seek to understand consumer attitudes to their products. As a result, perhaps, wine has largely avoided the sort of media scrutiny that beer and spirits have undergone over the last two years.

But, whilst the wine industry may have slipped under the radar of the UK's media, it has not escaped the gaze of both the anti-alcohol lobby and, most importantly, we learnt this week, the legislators.

"Crackdown on middle class wine drinkers", ran the headline in the Times this week, following the announcement. It is not just the drunken students that line our streets nor the under-age alcohol abusers that will be targeted for conversion. This new policy includes an important third strand - the middle-class wine drinker.

"We want to target older drinkers, those that are maybe drinking one or two bottles of wine at home each evening. They do not realise the damage they are doing to their health and that they risk developing liver disease. We are not talking here about the traditional wino," a Whitehall source was quoted saying in the same Times piece.

This latest report, an update on the Government's first alcohol strategy in 2004, said there are now 7.1m "hazardous and harmful" drinkers in England, costing the health economy GBP1.3bn. Another 1.1m "dependent drinkers" cost GBP403m, it said.

In the past, the wine industry has successfully distanced its consumers from these figures. No more.

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