Drinks industry takes a hold on government alcohol policy
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Monday 01 August 2011
The alcohol industry has tightened its grip on a key government policy-making committee that is responsible for reducing the harm of excessive drinking.
Medical experts are alarmed at the sharp increase in drinks industry representatives on the cross-departmental committee that sets the national alcohol strategy, since the Coalition Government came to power last year.
The name of the committee has also been changed from the "Alcohol Strategy Group" to the "Government and Partners Working Group on Alcohol", reflecting its new commercial bias.
Minutes of meetings of the group before and after the election, seen by The Independent, show that drinks industry representatives in attendance rose from an average of one or two at each meeting in 2009-10 to some six or seven in 2010-11.
Among the members of the cross-government group, chaired by the Home Office's director of drugs, alcohol and partnerships, are representatives of Heineken, Bacardi, Molson Coors, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and the supermarket Morrisons.
Experts said the Government was right to consult the industry about its plans but was wrong to include it on policy-making committees. It created an insuperable conflict of interest as "making money from alcohol sales is at odds with reducing harm".
The minutes were obtained by the BBC Panorama programme which tonight exposes the growing toll of harm caused to young people by alcohol. Anne Milton, a Health minister interviewed by Panorama, appears unaware of the existence of the group.
Yet in a letter dated 14 April 2011 to the British Medical Association, Paul Burstow, her ministerial colleague, says: "When you met Anne Milton you discussed a future alcohol strategy and we are developing plans to support that. This was discussed recently at the Cross-Government and Alcohol Partners Group."
The Department of Health will publish a revised alcohol strategy later this year. In March, six major health groups did not sign up to its "responsibility deal" on alcohol, covering voluntary deals with the drinks industry on matters like price, labels and marketing.
The organisations, including the British Medical Association and Alcohol Concern, said ministers were soft on the industry and demanded the agreement have legislative teeth.
Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said yesterday the Government must decide if it wants to get to grips with alcohol harm or let the drinks industry call the shots. "It can't have it both ways," he said.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "We are committed to challenging the assumption that the only way to change people's behaviour is through adding to rules and regulations."
The spokesman added that the Coalition was keen to "work with the industry on voluntary agreements to get speedier results".
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