Binge-drinking policy is too soft on drinks firms, says MPs' report

Richard Hall
Monday 09 January 2012 01:00

The Department of Health's strategy for promoting responsible drinking is flawed because it relies on the drinks industry to put public health before profit, MPs will say today.

The policy of allowing alcohol firms to tackle the problem voluntarily, rather than legislating to force them, has also been condemned by doctors.

Under a "responsibility deal" introduced by the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, last March, supermarkets, pubs and drinks manufacturers were invited to sign a pledge that included ensuring 80 per cent of products on the shelf are labelled for unit content and raising awareness of the unit content of drinks in pubs and clubs.

But the Science and Technology Parliamentary Select Committee says that the Department of Health's partnership cannot be relied on. "There is clearly a risk that drinks companies could face a conflict of interest as promoting a sensible-drinking message could affect profits," its report says.

A number of health organisations initially involved in drawing up the responsibility deal have pulled out. Groups including the Royal College of Physicians, the British Medical Association and Alcohol Concern claim that it prioritised the views of the industry and aimed to "foster a culture of responsible drinking" rather than tackling health issues.

MPs described the co-operation of the drinks industry as "essential", but added that the Government "should remain mindful that sensible-drinking messages may conflict with the business objectives of drinks companies".

The report says the committee is "concerned that there will not be an independent assessment until the target date of December 2013" and called for it to be brought forward one year.

Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians' special adviser on alcohol, yesterday renewed his criticism of the Government's relationship with the drinks industry. "Having watched the partnership and seeing how long and ineffective it has been on voluntary measures, I am less than sanguine that the industry will deliver on the responsibility deal," he told The Independent.

"We felt from the beginning that the pledges had been hammered out between the Government and drinks industry before health professionals arrived at the table, and we found it hard to make significant changes."

Labour MP Andrew Miller, who chaired the committee, said: "Clearly they are a very powerful lobby, and they use a huge amount of resource to present their arguments in a manner that makes it very difficult to resist the case, coming from the industry, that they are doing their bit. It was clear... that the industry is taking a much more relaxed view about what the Government should do than clinicians."

The Government has faced similar criticism for its approach to tackling health issues associated with the food industry. Mr Lansley has eschewed legislation on junk food and cut the £75m marketing budget for the Change4Life anti-obesity programme.

Two days a week off the bottle

Drinkers should give themselves two alcohol-free days a week, a committee of MPs has said.

The Commons' Science and Technology Committee believes abstaining from alcohol at least twice a week would help people's health. The MPs have also demanded a review of sensible-drinking guidelines amid fears they are unclear.

Andrew Miller, committee chairman, said: "Alcohol guidelines are a crucial tool to combat excessive drinking. Unfortunately, public understanding of how to use the guidelines and what an alcohol unit looks like is poor."

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