Comment - Wine - Pushing the Moderate Message
Ahead of next week's UK Budget, Chris Losh bemoans the fiscal pressures placed on the drinks industry. Could we not trumpet our good sides, he asks?
The UK is gearing up for another Budget, on 19 March. And, after almost a decade of relentless duty rises, you can tell how desperate things are because the industry has resorted to using the business case to plead for lower or frozen duty rates.
This is a bit like turkeys arguing that wholesale slaughter at Thanksgiving is bad for the farmer because it blunts his axe: It’s not inaccurate, but it rather misses the point.
The Government is taxing the hell out of drink because a) it can, and b) it feels it has a responsibility to do so.
With an apparently endless succession of NGOs and health watchdogs lining up to list its dangers, alcohol is beginning to look as isolated and vulnerable as the tobacco industry.
Moreover, this is a global trend. Developed countries from the Netherlands to New Zealand have tightened their drinks legislation over the last decade, and Thailand’s shock labels, warning of everything from suicide to family break-up, are a sign of what could be coming next.
In Australia, over 70 NGOs have formed a ‘National Alliance Against Alcohol’, and Mitchell Taylor, MD of winery Wakefield, has described health as "the number one priority for the wine industry". Not global warming, not oversupply, not China: Health.
This, though, is a lot more complex than the industry’s critics admit. Listen to the various health watchdogs and the Government, and you would assume that the UK, for instance, is staggering headlong into endemic alcoholism. In fact, for the last decade, all the trends have been in the other direction: Men, women and teenagers are all drinking less often and less heavily.
Some of this is due to government initiatives, and some to the drinks industry lowering alcohol levels. According to Helena Conibear of Alcohol in Moderation, some 1bn units a year have been removed from the supply chain.
"The drinks industry has engaged far more than the food industry," she says. "Without realising it, people are consuming less alcohol."
This positive message, however, is being stifled and there are plenty who wonder whether the drinks industry will ever be able to give sufficient ground to pacify the health lobby.
The lessons from the tobacco industry are not encouraging, but there is one key difference between the two products: Alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle, whereas tobacco cannot. Health groups might not like to admit the truth of this, but that doesn’t alter the reality.
Dr Erik Skovenborg, a Danish professor who has carried out a lot of research in this area has a message that is as unequivocal as it is surprising.
Not only is moderate consumption of alcohol not detrimental to health, he says, it’s actively beneficial. People who have one or two drinks a day (four units or less) are actually healthier than those who don’t drink at all.
This has been suspected since 1979, when a study in UK medical journal The Lancet revealed that wine consumption lowered rates of heart disease. Hundreds of studies (no exaggeration) have since confirmed this protective effect and, last year, a series of controlled studies showed that moderate consumption of alcohol was also of benefit in combatting lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and auto-immune diseases.
These conclusions are based on ‘observational evidence’ rather than ‘randomized controlled time’ studies – so they’re not, perhaps, as rigorous as the scientific community would like. But, as Skovenborg points out, this is the same means of analysis that has been used to draw policy-formulating conclusions regarding diet and smoking for the last 50 years.
"If it turned out to be effective," he claims, "wine could be a very useful medicine that could reduce total mortality by up to 18%."
The key in drink’s transformation from pariah to medicine is the word ‘moderate’. Once people start to drink eight units or more on a regular basis, any health benefits are negated.
But still, having a product that, used correctly, can scientifically be proven to ‘reduce total mortality’ might avert the very real possibility that drinks groups lose their place at the table when legislation is being debated. Because that’s the way things are going.
"Critics of the industry see no difference between wine and spirits," says Dr Marjana Martinic of the International Centre for Alcohol Policies. "There have been repeated calls for a framework convention on alcohol, similar to that for tobacco. It would heavily limit the alcohol industry and bar it from any formulation of policy."
To be fair, there are positive messages out there. 'Wine In Moderation' - an EU initiative - is aimed at promoting wine’s ability to be part of a healthy lifestyle. But, its profile since it launched in 2008 has been too low to have much impact. And Martinic, for one, thinks that it might already be too late to stem the political tide in established markets.
"Emerging markets are the new battleground for the industry," she says. "There’s a great opportunity to put in place responsible marketing codes and behaviour – things that will pre-empt the kind of behaviour that we’re seeing elsewhere."
The question is whether, in mature markets, the drinks lobby can use the ‘moderation is healthy’ message to wrest control of the health debate from their opponents.
Much as the heart might love the idea of drink outflanking the health lobby with solid science, the head is more sceptical. For starters, there would need to be pan-industry unity (unlikely) and a costly commitment to a lengthy campaign of lobbying and promotion.
More fatal, however, is the complexity of the message. After years of pushing the idea that alcohol is bad, I can’t see any politician staking their reputation on such a nuanced concept as ‘it’s good in moderation’, however solid the science behind it.
"99% of scientists see a causal association between moderate alcohol consumption and reduced heart disease, but I don’t think politicians are very attentive to evidence," says Skovenborg, pragmatically.
I wonder, though, wouldn’t it be great to be proved wrong?
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