Leading article: We should not let the drinks industry set policy on alcohol

Drinks companies will never see an interest in discouraging people from buying their products
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The Independent Online

It is safe to say that if a government committee on reducing the danger to health caused by smoking asked members of the tobacco industry to join in its deliberations, an outcry would follow. It seems extraordinary, therefore, that a cross-government alcohol strategy group – whose work will inform a revised strategy on drinking, timed for release later this year – includes leading members of the drinks industry. As we report today, the Working Group on Alcohol includes members of Heineken, Bacardi, Molson Coors, the British Beer and Pub Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and the supermarket Morrisons. These firms are not only present on the working group but are increasingly active in its work. Minutes seen by this newspaper show that the number of drinks industry representatives attending meetings rose from one or two in 2009-10 to six or seven in 2010-2011.

If excess drinking was an obscure problem on the margins of British life, the folly of including poachers and gamekeepers in the same decision-making process might seem less egregious. But this is not the case, even though we still seem only half-sensible about the toll from our addiction to this drug. Some experts in the BMA estimate the annual cost of drunkenness in Britain at around £25bn, adding together the bills for alcohol-related healthcare, crime, disorder and accidents. This figure is only an estimate. Some put it at around £15bn. But no one can deny that the cost of binge drinking in Britain has risen as has the overall amount that we drink. Alcohol consumption has risen in Britain by 40 per cent since 1970, a stupendous rise, though one partly concealed from view by the mass closure of pubs and the trend away from drinking in pubs and restaurants towards buying alcohol in supermarkets and drinking it at home.

There should, therefore, be no room for complacent talk of how Britons are evolving from quaffers of industrial-scale quantities of cheap booze into discerning, continental-style tipplers of fine wine. Yet the Coalition Government appears complacent about the danger. Either that or their free-market instincts simply mean that they are happy for commercial interests to play a big part in determining government policy, even in fields from which one might think they ought to be excluded, such as health.

Concern about this relationship has grown. When the Department of Health in the spring tried to get most big health organisations to sign up to a new "Public Health Responsibility Deal" on labelling the alcoholic strengths of drinks on sale, two refused to do so, because they felt that the drinks industry had set the terms, ensuring the exclusion from the deal of any policies with teeth designed to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

The Health Department responded by claiming that working with the drinks industry was delivering "faster and better results than regulation". But this claim has not been proven, and the thinking behind it seems flawed. It's not clear why drinks companies should ever see an interest in discouraging people from consuming their products. The Government needs to decide its priority – curbing the amount that we drink, or maintaining a convivial relationship with the drinks lobbyists. It cannot do both.