If we want to help alcoholics, we must swallow an awkward fact

For all its talk of responsible drinking, the alcohol industry depends on heavy boozers. 

NS

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In late 2009, representatives of the alcohol industry were summoned to parliament to give evidence to a health committee inquiry into the government’s alcohol strategy. On four separate occasions, the committee returned to the same question: how would the alcohol industry’s sales be affected if people were to abide by the government’s drinking guidelines?

They did not receive a direct response, but Asda’s corporate affairs director claimed that: “We would not encourage people to drink more than the recommended number of units per week”. The chief marketing officer of the multi-national drinks producer, Diageo, insisted that “we want a society where everybody drinks responsibly”. The chairman of the industry-funded Drinkaware Trust maintained that getting drinkers to keep to the guidelines would be “a major accomplishment and a real market success”.

In actual fact, the alcohol industry is highly dependent on heavy drinking. New research shows that two-thirds of alcohol sales revenue in England comes from people drinking above the low-risk guideline levels of 14 units a week (approximately six pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine). Moreover, almost a quarter of industry turnover comes from the 4 per cent of the population drinking at levels defined by the government as harmful (over 50 units per week for men, or 35 for women).

Despite the public commitment of over 100 firms to “foster a culture of responsible drinking, which will help people to drink within guidelines”, the study – published this week in the journal Addiction by myself and colleagues at the University of Sheffield – indicates that much of the industry would face financial disaster if everybody were to limit their consumption to 14 units a week. We estimate that the alcohol market would shrink by 38 per cent, and that drinks companies would lose out on £13bn of revenue.

The fundamental underlying issue is whether the industry is part of the solution or the problem when it comes to addressing alcohol harm. In England, 24,000 people die each year as a result of drinking, and rates of such mortality are over 50 per cent higher for the most deprived in society. For years, the alcohol industry has claimed that getting its heaviest consumers to cut down is in its enlightened self-interest. Just last month, Ivan Menezes, CEO of Diageo, categorically stated that “there is no trade-off” between running a successful alcohol business and “working toward a world without harmful drinking”. According to this argument, promoting “moderation” enhances the industry’s reputation and staves off government regulation. At the same time, the industry need not lose out financially if it can encourage consumers to “drink less, but drink better”, by trading up to more expensive drinks. However, such claims are implausible – we estimate that the average price of a pint of beer would have to rise by £4.36, and a bottle of spirits by £12.25 to fully offset the revenue lost from full compliance with the guidelines.

This matters because, by and large, successive Westminster governments appear to have bought into the industry’s argument. The 2012 Alcohol Strategy assumed that the industry recognises an “ethical responsibility…to promote, market, advertise and sell their products in a responsible way”. The industry is trusted to self-regulate alcohol marketing. There are no legal requirements for alcohol producers to provide health and nutritional information on their labels – instead, there is a voluntary labelling scheme. The major alcohol policy of recent years has been the Responsibility Deal, a government-led initiative encouraging drinks companies to contribute to public awareness campaigns, restrict sales to underage drinkers and reduce the strength of their products.

Our analysis suggests that the 2009 Health Committee report was correct when it concluded: “The government must be more sceptical about the industry’s claims that it is in favour of responsible drinking.” The alcohol industry has a strong financial interest in ensuring its consumers continue to drink at a level hazardous to their health. This should disqualify it from taking such a prominent role in shaping alcohol policy.

The government needs to put less faith in the good intentions of industry, and take responsibility for tackling harmful drinking. That means relying less on voluntary commitments and introducing statutory regulation on marketing and labelling. It means ignoring industry lobbying and forging ahead with policies with strong evidence of effectiveness, like minimum unit pricing and raising alcohol taxes.

In the case of tobacco, the government has slowly come to recognise that its responsibility is to protect the health of its citizens, not to prop up a business model premised on harm. It must do the same for alcohol. Reducing alcohol consumption would not only save lives, but also likely boost the economy, as gains in other sectors offset the losses of the alcohol industry. As I write, the drinks industry is ploughing £9m into a campaign to cut beer duty, despite the fact that the tax is already 16 per cent lower in real terms today than in 2012. The government must resist. The cost of prioritising the profits of the alcohol industry over public health will be measured in lost and broken lives.

Aveek Bhattacharya is a policy analyst at the Institute of Alcohol Studies.