Drinks industry under pressure over health warnings

The drinks industry could be forced to put health warnings on alcohol under proposals published by the Government today.

Just 15 per cent of alcoholic drinks currently carry five key messages, despite a voluntary code agreed between industry and Government in 2007.

The code said that by the end of 2008, the majority of alcoholic drink labels would include the number of units the drink contained, drinking guidelines of no more than three or four units a day for men and two or three for women, and the website address for the Drinkaware Trust.

Products should also carry a warning to pregnant women and those trying to conceive, alongside the words "know your limits", "enjoy responsibly" or "drink responsibly".

However, a report released by the Department of Health today shows that just 15 per cent of drinks are "acceptable" in carrying all five warnings.

There has been an increase since 2008, when only 6 per cent of labels met the standard, but today's report said just 19 per cent of labels will carry all the warnings by the end of this year.

The Government has launched a consultation on the issue, with three proposals on how to move forward.

These are do nothing and continue with the current voluntary agreement; "renew and strengthen" the self-regulatory agreement or introduce a mandatory requirement on labelling.

Public health minister Gillian Merron said: "Despite responsible efforts from some brands such as Bulmers, Foster's, Kronenbourg and the major supermarkets, overall progress on labelling is very disappointing.

"Whilst there should be no need to bring in legislation when the industry can clearly sort it out themselves, we will not hesitate to act decisively if industry does not deliver.

"I expect to see much more leadership from more of the major producers.

"We know that too many are drinking at harmful levels and producers should play their part in helping to stem this tide by ensuring we all have access to clear and consistent health information on labels."

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: "We have now received assurances to comply from most of the major manufacturers and retailers.

"I invite the industry as a whole to deliver on these assurances, and look forward to finding a way to make this happen during the consultation."

Today's report said the cider sector had made "substantial progress" and good progress was also being made on supermarket "own label" drinks.

Beer producers such as Heineken and Molson Coors are singled out by the Government for providing good quality information on their labels.

Over the weekend, AB InBev, which makes Stella, Beck's, Budweiser and Leffe, announced it would comply with the voluntary scheme.

Today's report said that, overall, 85 per cent of drinks contain some sort of unit and health information.

However, some of the warnings are not acceptable in terms of quality or clarity while 15 per cent of products contained no unit or health information at all.

David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, whose members produce 55 per cent of the alcohol sold in the UK, said: "We are pleased that all our member companies have now signed up to the voluntary scheme.

"This means that a majority of labels on alcoholic drinks sold in the UK will be displaying the desired information."

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said supermarkets have unit labelling on virtually all their own brand alcohol, and BRC food director Andrew Opie said: "Retailers are responsible.

"They don't need to be told to do this. From the very start retailers recognised the importance of unit labelling to encouraging responsible drinking.

"We were the first to get involved with the Government on this and we were actively involved in developing the label as a concise, easy way to give customers information that helps them make informed decisions.

"While owners of some of the big name brands have dragged their feet, supermarkets have set the pace and now have unit labels on virtually all their own brand alcohol.

"They deserve full credit. What we now need is consistency and the same level of commitment from all parts of the drinks industry."

A spokeswoman for AB InBev said: "We have confirmed to the Health Secretary that we will support the Government's voluntary labelling regime.

"This will be in addition to our support and funding for the independent Drinkaware Trust and the Campaign for Smarter Drinking."

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: "Yet again research independently commissioned by Government shows that the drinks industry is dragging its feet - this time in complying with the information it has promised to put on labels.

"With 85 per cent failing to meet their own agreed standards, we surely cannot waste another three years before bringing in a mandatory code that forces them to give the public the information they deserve."

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, says: "The time for consultation is over.

"The alcohol industry has shown that it is not capable of acting collectively for the good of public health and the code should be mandatory and strictly enforced.

"The Government has been talking about this for over 10 years now, stalling at every opportunity, even though their own Department of Health-funded research showed significant non-compliance."