Drinks industry holds too much sway over the Government, warn MPs

The Government is too close to the drinks industry and needs to adopt a tougher approach to the health problems caused by alcohol, according to an inquiry by MPs which reports today.

The all-party Commons Health Select Committee calls for an independent review of the Coalition's "responsibility deal" with drinks manufacturers, which is regarded as too cosy by health pressure groups.

It accuses ministers of focusing too heavily on the public order problems caused by binge drinking rather than tackling the damage to people's health by a product blamed for 6,600 deaths and 198,000 hospital admissions a year, and which costs the NHS £3.5bn annually.

"The main focus of the [Government's] strategy is the need to address public order issues," the committee's report says. "We agree that these are important, but we believe the health impact of the misuse of alcohol is more insidious and pervasive."

It questions the Coalition's voluntary approach to regulating the industry through the responsibility deal, which gives companies a seat at the table where the Government's stance is shaped. The MPs argue that drinks firms should not expect "brownie points" for taking part and that their participation should be compulsory.

Calling for a study of the agreement by the Public Health England agency, the MPs warn that plans to reduce the strength of some lagers from 5 to 4.8 per cent will not have a significant impact. "If the industry does not bring forward more substantial proposals than this it risks being seen as paying only lip service to the need to reduce the health harms caused by alcohol," they say.

Although the committee backs the Government's plan to bring in a minimum price for alcohol of 40p or 50p a unit, it argues that it should expire unless it is shown to reduce harmful drinking.

It rejects a proposed ban on "multibuy offers" used by supermarkets as "unworkable" and calls for clearer guidance about "safe" drinking levels, saying that measuring alcohol in units is confusing.

The report dismisses as "implausible" the drinks industry's claim that its advertising campaigns promote brands rather than encourage drinking. While it stops short of backing calls by doctors for a total ban on adverts, it calls for a tighter code including curbs on cinema commercials shown to under-18s and sports sponsorship and possibly a French-style ban on TV commercials.

The Portman Group, the social responsibility body for alcohol producers funded by the industry, said: "It is deeply disappointing that they have failed to understand the significance of the innovative unit reduction pledge, supported by all major producers, retailers, and leading wholesalers who have committed to lower the alcohol content of leading brands, and introduce new ranges of lower alcohol products."

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