Industrial strength: Where next for alcohol policy?

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-16-09-07The 2012 alcohol strategy (DDN, April 2012, page 4) had set the policy direction that local areas were still following, head of public services and welfare for cross-party think tank Demos, Ian Wybron, told last month’s What now for alcohol policy? event. The significant exception, of course, was minimum unit pricing, the strategy’s commitment to which was later shelved (DDN, August 2013, page 4). ‘Binge drinking across the UK is in decline and has been for ten years, particularly among 16 to 24-year-olds,’ he told delegates. However, alcohol-related hospital admissions were increasing, and alcohol-related violent crime remained a major issue.

The strategy had contained a great deal on local area partnerships, he said, but the government appeared to have gone ‘very quiet’ on the controversial public health responsibility deal – a ‘very interesting engagement’ between itself, the industry and the voluntary sector. Other elements of a changing policy landscape included the newly revised chief medical officer guidelines (DDN, February, page 4) and the potential implications of Brexit – ‘it feels like there’s an awful lot of uncertainty around alcohol policy there,’ he said. According to Demos’s own research, there were a number of factors that could explain declining rates of binge drinking among young people, he told the event. ‘There seem to have been successes in terms of the health messaging around alcohol, with lots of young people taking those messages on board and moderating their consumption. There’s also a big role for social media, and the sheer amount of time that young people spend on it when perhaps they might otherwise be out drinking. Working with the statistics is always difficult, but one thing they do indicate is that while fewer people are drinking, the ones who are, are drinking more. So what’s needed is a much more targeted approach.’

The think tank’s interviewing had found that young people still did not use units to calculate or moderate their drinking, however. ‘They don’t really understand them, so we do need a new language in terms of consumption – one that makes sense to young people – as well as more emphasis on developing preventative programmes in schools.’ While there had been ‘a lot of effort’ around unit awareness, clearly more was needed, acknowledged the British Beer and Pub Association’s director of public affairs, David Wilson.

The binge drinking figures, however, showed that some policy measures were working, he said. ‘So we need to learn what works and do more of it. The more we can do together – as policy makers and industry – the more effective we can become, rather than having all our debates pitched as stand-offs between the two.’ The industry would continue to develop, and promote, greater choice in areas such as lower-strength products, he said, but this had to be combined with more government help in terms of things like tax policy and advertising rules.

‘We believe that policy – fiscal and otherwise – should encourage and promote low-strength products,’ he said, while one possible opportunity in terms of Brexit was the chance it offered to review beer, wine and cider duties, which are calculated according to alcohol by volume (ABV). In terms of the retailer role in helping to reduce harm, alcohol remained an ‘incredibly important’ category for shopkeepers, said public affairs executive at the Association of Convenience Stores, Julie Byers. ‘Our members have a huge responsibility when it comes to things like ensuring there are no under-age sales.’

Around 70 per cent of convenience store retailers had an age-verification scheme like ‘Challenge 25’ in place, with more than a quarter refusing under-age sales around ten times a week – something that was not always easy for staff working alone in the shop and facing aggression. Her organisation also distributed information to raise awareness of things like proxy purchases – when children persuade older siblings, friends or even parents to buy alcohol on their behalf – and many local authorities and community alcohol partnerships now had campaigns explaining to parents that proxy purchasing was illegal.

‘When people think of the drinks industry they tend to think of huge multinationals, but 90 per cent of it is small and medium sized enterprises – something that’s hugely import­ant to bear in mind when looking at policy,’ chief executive officer of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, Kate Nicholls, told the event. ‘The night-time economy is worth £66bn – it’s big business for UK PLC.’ Her organisation’s members had a vested interest in tackling alcohol-related harm, she told delegates – ‘it’s not good for business if we don’t have a safe night-time economy’ – and partnership was key. Two thirds of alcohol was now sold and consumed away from the on-trade, she said, which meant that ‘top-down policy approaches’ targeting clubs, pubs and bars were not going to achieve the desired results.

‘You can obtain the same end objectives working in partnership,’ she said. Initiatives like promoting lower-strength products and smaller measures would always be more effective than bureaucracy or ‘finger-wagging and lecturing’. ‘We do need to recognise success as well,’ she said, ‘which means we need a clear benchmark of where we start from to work together’. Her members were frustrated, however, that ‘the goalposts seem to keep moving,’ she stated. ‘You need to give the trade the credit where it’s deserved, and you also need to make sure there’s joined-up thinking across government. In our own dealings with government we’ll say “people are drinking less” and they’ll say “ah yes, but now they’re drinking all those nasty soft drinks that are full of sugar instead”.’

‘It’s worth saying that, in any social policy area, to have these sorts of trends in things like reductions in binge drinking is very significant,’ said Portman Group chief executive Henry Ashworth. ‘But we really need to make the effort together to tackle things like the rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions.’ One of the main tasks was to see how local challenges related to the bigger picture, he said – for example binge drinking rates in Newcastle or alcohol-related hospital admissions in Blackpool, both of which were way above national averages. The ‘negative’ attitudes towards the alcohol responsibility deal had also not been helpful, he argued. ‘The drinks industry committed to, and delivered, 80 per cent of alcohol products on the shelves carrying unit and health information and pregnancy warnings – voluntarily.’ Things were now ‘in a different place’ when it came to labelling, however, as, ‘having achieved that 80 per cent figure, the CMO’s guidelines have changed’. There was a ‘plethora of fantastic’ local alcohol partnerships and schemes that were addressing the challenges in a coordinated way, he said. ‘We need to continue to robustly evaluate these partnerships to understand what’s working well. That way we can build more trust between the public and private sectors, the industry and the public health community, and identify and overcome the barriers to effective partnership working.’

When it came to a policy area that was nearly as controversial as the responsibility deal – advertising regulation – the last three years had seen a ‘sharp decline’ in the number of complaints about alcohol adverts, said regulatory policy manager at the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Malcolm Phillips. There had also been a smaller decline in the number of alcohol cases his organisation – which enforces the UK’s advertising codes – had decided to formally investigate, he explained. However, the authority knew it could not ‘rely on complaints alone to tell us what we need to know’, and was committed to maintaining a proactive approach towards the issue. ‘A claim often made by critics of advertising self-regulation is that the codes have no teeth, and there’s no incentives for companies to not bend the rules,’ said Diageo GB’s head of alcohol in society, Mark Baird. ‘This is not true. ‘If you spend hundreds of thousands of pounds making an advert and buying advertising slots only to find out you can’t use it – that has an impact, believe me.’

Advertising self-regulation served to complement national laws, he said, and ‘always went beyond’ the legal requirements. ‘Alcohol advertising comes under regular government scrutiny, but it’s very difficult to isolate a single factor – advertising – from all the other factors that influence alcohol con­sumption,’ he argued. Denmark, for example, had liberalised advertising regulations and seen consumption decline, he said, while the introduction of the Loi Évin – designed to restrict children’s exposure to alcohol marketing – in France in the early ’90s had had limited impact on consumption levels. ‘It’s very, very tight regulation, but under-age drinking is actually on the increase in France, at the same time as it’s declining here.’

In a ‘mature market’, advertising did not increase overall demand, he maintained. ‘So that brings us to the question people always come back with – “If you say alcohol advertis­ing doesn’t work, why do companies spend so much money on it?” Well, of course it works, it just doesn’t work in the way critics and commentators say it does – does Andrex think it can grow the market for toilet paper? The purpose of advertising is to raise aware­ness of your product, and to steal market share from your competitors. We want people to buy our product, rather than someone else’s.’