Challenging the drinks industry

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Jackie BallardFight the power

Six months into her new job, Alcohol Concern chief executive Jackie Ballard talks to DDN’s David Gilliver about communication, information, and standing up to big business

‘What attracts me to any job is that it’s a cause that I can believe in, care about and think I know a little bit about,’ says Alcohol Concern chief executive Jackie Ballard. ‘And that there’s a challenge there, a job to be done.’

And there’s quite a job to be done when it comes to taking on the drinks industry, as she’s fully aware. With its massive marketing budgets and mighty lobbying power, how does any organisation go about tackling that? ‘At various different levels,’ she says. ‘There is a level of trying to talk directly to the public, trying to encourage individuals to change their behaviour, and for us the primary vehicle for that is the Dry January campaign.’

Encouraging people to give up drinking for a month also gives them ‘a breathing space to re-think their relationship with alcohol’, she says, with the ‘vast majority’ going on to drink less throughout the year. ‘They realise, “I can manage quite well without it, I’ve saved some money, lost some weight, I wake up in the morning feeling more lively”. So there is that ground level, if you like, and over the coming years we plan to do more – to find ways of engaging the public all year round.’

Then comes the local authority/public health level, with commissioning groups, primary care and the people dealing with the issue on the front line that the charity engages with through its training and consultancy work. ‘The problem is they often don’t have the money to tackle the things they want to tackle, but there isn’t an unwillingness to deal with it, because they’re so close to the problem.’ And then there’s government, where the ‘forces of good’ are represented by the Home Office and Department of Health, she says.

‘Again, they know what it’s costing, in terms of crime and disorder and health, but they’re fighting a battle against the Treasury and Department for Business and people who are primarily looking at the economic contribution or the employment contribution that the drinks industry makes.’ Alcohol Concern’s job is to ‘try to strengthen the arm of health and the Home Office, where we have allies’, she says. ‘We don’t need to think we’re fighting the whole of the government, because we’re not. We just have to make the public aware of the kind of choices the government is making – choosing to allow self-regulation, not to put duty up on alcohol, things like that. And we’re very good at publicity – we punch well above our weight when it comes to the press and the media.’

In terms of the media, how confident is she that Alcohol Concern can get its message about minimum unit pricing [MUP] over convincingly? Studies show that the effect on moderate drinkers would be negligible, but that’s not the narrative in most of the press.

‘With the public discourse, I can only assume that it’s misguided information from the drinks industry that’s overwhelming the health messages,’ she says. ‘There was a really good piece of research from Southampton University earlier this year that showed that the heaviest drinkers, and those with liver disease, were spending 33p per unit on booze, because they’re looking for the cheapest way of getting drunk or blotting out their problems. They’re spending way under 50p, which is what we’re arguing for with MUP. But the lowest-risk drinkers, who read the Daily Mail and think, “ooh, this will affect me”, are spending £1.10 per unit. They’re buying a nice bottle of wine that’s costing them eight quid or whatever, and having it with their dinner. This will have no impact whatsoever on them, but it will have the impact on the heaviest drinkers and young people who are pre-loading before going out.’

The charity is still hopeful that ‘at least one’ of the main parties will have MUP in their election manifesto, and that even a Conservative-led government after May would ultimately implement it. While the issue is officially off the agenda until the outcome of Scotland’s attempts to implement MUP is known, and there are ‘loud voices’ in both the Tories and Lib Dems who are opposed, the ‘balance seems to be in favour’, she states. ‘I’m optimistic that we will see it within a couple of years. Sometimes a cause becomes unstoppable. If there are so many people from different angles saying, “this is the way to deal with this problem” then it becomes difficult to resist.’

What about the government’s responsibility deal with the industry, which recently included a new set of pledges, including an end to the sale of super-strength drinks in large cans – does she have any confidence in it to deliver? ‘No,’ she states. ‘The primary purpose of any business is to sell their product and make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s the way capitalism works – but there’s no way people who are in business to make a profit are going to voluntarily say, “ooh, I know how we can cut down our number of customers or get them to drink a bit less”. What they are going to do, at the margins, is say, “let’s minimise the damage to our reputation from people seeing a particular brand in the hands of a street drinker or a Saturday night binge drinker”. That’s all.’

She also backs the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse’s recent recommendation that there should be warnings on all alcohol labels (DDN, September, page 5), as people ‘tend to think the only risks they’re running are hangovers and liver disease’, she says.

‘When I talk to people and say, “alcohol is the second biggest risk factor for cancer” they say, “really? I didn’t know that”. People don’t tend to know about all the other conditions associated with alcohol, and it doesn’t trip off the tongue that there’s a safe, sensible limit in terms of drinking and that you should have a couple of days a week where you don’t drink at all. Alcohol is a poison. Every other bottle poison in the supermarket has a warning label on it.’

On the subject of sensible limits, do people actually understand the safe drinking guidelines? ‘I think it’s difficult,’ she acknowledges. ‘I don’t know a better way of portraying them, but most people would say “what does one to two units look like? Is it a glass of wine?” Then you get into what strength wine and how big a glass, which is why I think that the apps you can get that help you monitor your consumption are a good idea. Otherwise I think it is difficult for people, especially given that one of the big changes over the last 20 years is the amount of alcohol that’s consumed at home. Nobody has spirit measures or wine glasses with ‘125ml’ written on the side – it’s much easier in a home environment to have even one glass and be over your daily allowance.’

She has a wealth of experience in the charity sector, heading up RSPCA, Action on Hearing Loss and Womankind Worldwide, but it was partly the experience of a sabbatical to do volunteering work in Malawi a couple of years ago that led her to the Alcohol Concern job. ‘I was a volunteer in the VSO office so when I needed to get the printer to work or whatever I had to do it myself, because I didn’t have a PA or an IT department where I could say, “can you fix this?” That’s what made me decide I wanted to run a small charity next. I realised how de-skilled I’d become by running a big thing, because when you’re running big things you don’t have to know a lot of small things.’

But there were also some personal reasons, she explains. ‘I do know something about the issue. When I was a teenager my parents were landlords of a pub, and my father was also a very heavy drinker and ultimately died of cirrhosis of the liver.’

She was also an MP for four years, ‘surrounded by people who were drinking more than they ought to’ in Parliament’, she says. ‘The more I looked into it the more I realised that there was a huge issue here, with a big imbalance between the people who are trying to get a change to our culture and those who are pushing and marketing their products, and at the moment the government is primarily on the side of the pushers of the product. So there is a job to be done there. I don’t think it’s a hopeless cause but it is a challenge, and that fires me up.’

That experience as Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton isn’t something she’d want to repeat, she says. ‘I loved representing local people and I honestly felt that was a real privilege, but I didn’t particularly like Parliament – it was a bit like going to a boys’ boarding school. I didn’t like the confrontational nature of politics in Parliament, the blokey atmosphere and the blatant sexist behaviour on show. I didn’t want to lose my seat, but having lost it I wasn’t sorry not to be in Parliament any more. But I don’t regret it at all, because if I hadn’t had that experience I wouldn’t be here now – it was that experience and that understanding of how lobbying and Westminster and Whitehall work that enabled me to get a job at the RSPCA and the rest of my career in the voluntary sector.’

Her predecessor Eric Appleby said that he briefly worried about being seen as a killjoy when he first decided to take on the role – was that ever a concern? ‘You can’t worry about what’s said on Twitter or on blogs – and industries in general have paid bloggers, which most of the public don’t realise,’ she says. ‘You mustn’t let yourself get upset about the fact that somebody can have a rant on social media, saying you just want to stop people having fun. Yes, a glass of wine or pint of beer can be very enjoyable but this is a toxin you’re putting into your body, and if you do it too much then you’re going to be harming yourself, and maybe harming other people. We have to give out that message – people need to be aware.’

So six months into the post, how is she finding it? ‘I’m loving it. We’re a very small organisation with a much bigger reputation. We struggle day to day for funding, we have those kind of challenges, and we are finding it’s a David and Goliath battle with the industry, but that’s what motivates us. It’s a battle worth fighting. We’re not prohibitionists or nanny state do-gooders or teetotallers or anything like that. We just want a world where alcohol doesn’t do any harm.’