Government alcohol policy has long been a mystery to me. On the one hand the production of alcohol products is strictly regulated, and very effectively so. On the other, alcohol supply and marketing is a virtual free for all, wild west-style capitalism, unregulated, reckless, dangerous and with disastrous consequences for all to see. Consider:
- Alcohol products/brands are free to aggressively advertise to children and young people through multi billion pound sport sponsorship, including alcohol brands on children's replica sports wear. Not to mention the screamingly stupid rules that allow alcohol brands to sponsor F1 and other high speed driving events (just think about that...).
- The development of alcohol products, including brightly coloured sweet 'alco-pops' that are clearly developed for, and marketed at the youth market.
- The almost complete non-enforcement of laws prohibiting the serving of alcohol to people who appear intoxicated.
- The bizarre exemption of alcohol products from having to put ingredient listings on packaging - unique amongst all foods and beverages.
- After waiting a shameful 5 years for the alcohol strategy promised early in the life of the labour Government, it finally turns up full of good intentions but entirely lacking teeth or the political will to put said good intentions into action (see above bullets) and has demonstrably failed with alcohol related harms continuing to rise.
The disgrace that is the UK Government's policy position on alcohol marketing made a small belated step towards some sort of redemption this week with the announcement that alcoholic drinks will carry health warnings, alcohol content as measured in units, a link to the (industry produced and funded) drinkaware website, and safe drinking limits measured in units, from the end of 2008. It should however be noted that the scheme is voluntary and a number of massive alcohol companies have apparently refused to sign up including Scottish & Newcastle, Bacardi, Carlsberg and Diageo which owns Guinness, Blossom Hill, Baileys and Smirnoff.
The news is undoubtedly a positive step, but the anomaly of alcohol's health warning exemption has been an ongoing mystery for those in the public health field for decades, especially when we consider that alcohol is the second most deadly drug on earth (after tobacco), responsible for an estimated 20,000+ premature deaths a year in the UK alone, not forgetting the growing epidemic of binge drinking related violence and social disorder, and alcohol's role in:
- The problems of alcohol misuse, particularly among the young, were the subject of a Ministerial working group set up in November 1987. Notably no mention was made of the use of health warnings when the group reported in January next year.
- In June 1988 Tony Banks MP introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill to require health warnings to be shown on alcohol labelling and in licensed premises. His proposal did not receive Government support, or the backing of his party.
- Alcohol Concern's unambiguously titled paper 'Warning: Alcohol Can Damage Your Health', published in 1991 suggested that, at the very least, there should be voluntary agreement by the drinks industry to show, on all packaging, the number of units of alcohol contained, either in the whole can/bottle, or in an average glass of its contents, and they support the introduction of health warnings similar to those used now in the United States.
- Health warnings on alcohol have been advocated by The British Medical Association since 1986. In 1995 a BMA publication: 'Guidelines on sensible drinking' recommended that heath warning against excessive alcohol should also be incorporated in advertisements, and alcohol products should specify the exact number of units.
Well, in a response to a letter from Transform asking why Alcohol products didn't carry health warnings and unit content dated 1st of July 1997, a tad under ten years ago, and just a couple of months after the new government was elected , we received the following response from the Department of Health:
This preposterous nonsense begged a whole series of secondary questions and issues:
The Government believes that if alcohol is drunk in sensible amounts and in appropriate situations it is not likely to be harmful to a person's health. Therefore, we do not consider it appropriate to display on alcohol containers the health warnings displayed on cigarette packets, although we will keep the matter under review.
The alcoholic strength by volume of a drink must, by law, be shown on its label. However, the Government is working with the drinks industry to produce an agreed format for providing information about the number of units of alcohol in a container at the point of sale. This will help consumers keep a check on the amount of alcohol they drink.
(we recieved other letters that contained the exact same wording)
Firstly - ANY DRUG if consumed in 'sensible amounts and in the appropriate situations' ..is 'not likely to be harmful to a persons health', including , for example, heroin and cocaine. But...
Secondly - that's really not the point is it, since - obviously- the aim of health warnings is to prevent people consuming non-sensible amounts in non-appropriate situations, something that evidently happens all the time with alcohol. In other words, to make the distinction between use and abuse or, if you prefer, non-problematic and problematic use. Its like arguing that speeding warnings aren't necessary because its safe if you drive under the speed limit.
Thirdly - if you are giving advice in public education messages about sensible drinking in units, then people need to see units on alcohol products: providing alcohol strength and drink volume on the packaging and leaving drinkers to calculate unit content for themselves is obviously not good enough. Nor is providing units at point of sale - they need to be on the packet. You legislate it - it happens. No one will complain; not drinkers, not alcohol concern, not the BMA. No one. Except......the drinks industry.
And this is where it all becomes clear. The only group to object to this obviously sensible and easy to implement measure has historically been the drinks industry. And the reason is obvious; they felt their profits would be under threat. To this end have wielded all their considerable financial, political and lobbying might to prevent health warnings being placed on the drugs they sell, and to prevent people knowing how much of the drug they are consuming. Their concern is profit not public health and we should not be under any illusions about this fact; anything that reduces consumption and profit will be resisted.
So whilst we should celebrate this small victory for common sense we should also use it to point a critical spotlight on Government thinking on drug policy. What sort of political culture is operating that allowed the Government to succumb to industry pressure for so long, whilst problematic drinking was becoming an ever more serious public health and criminal justice issue? In numerous respects they still are succumbing. It is scandalous and should be profoundly worrying for everyone in the drug policy field.
It is a particular worry for those in drug policy reform as its sets a spectacularly bad precedent for future regulatory systems for other drugs in a post prohibition world. For reformers, however, it is easy to be consistent on this issue; we support appropriate evidence based regulation to reduce harm from the production supply and use of all drugs. For illegal drugs this means bringing them within and appropriate legal framework, and for legal drugs, making sure existing regulation is effective and reforming it where appropriate - the goal is the same: minimising harm to users and the wider comunity whilst maximising personal and social wellbeing.
Finally it is worth asking why this change regards labelling has happened now. I suspect that it is all about PR both for the Government and the industry. For the Government they want to be able to say they have 'done something' on alcohol policy - which will be coming under the spotlight as we approach the publication of the new, revised, alcohol strategy (it's a trick familiar to students of illicit drug politics; if all the policy outcomes are a total disaster, just announce some new process stuff - evidence of effectiveness not required). For the industry its similarly all about PR - 'look how responsible we are' they will now be able to claim, 'we listen to the critics, doctors and public health experts', and 'we are genuinely concerned about problem drinking'. No; 30% of drinkers consume 80% of alcohol; this is industry is built on problem drinkers, its biggest earner. On this issue, I must confess, I am beyond cynicism. When I see football team replica kit babygrows with beer brands on them I can't but feel that not only should the industry never be trusted, but also that Government policy on alcohol is totally divorced from ethics and common sense.
Theres more to say on all this but it'll have to wait - rant over for now.