Thursday, October 16, 2008

Transform submission to the DoH alcohol policy consultation

Transform have made a submission to the latest DoH consultation on Alcohol policy, a section of which is copied below. The complete submission is available here (pdf). The submission includes some broader political discussion points:

  • The negative influence of the alcohol industry on implementation of public health based regulation.

  • The Government’s historic failure to stand up to industry pressure, or undertake the potentially unpopular regulatory measures required

  • The anomalous status of alcohol policy, relative to a) tobacco policy and b) illegal drug policy
It includes an endorsement of the Alcohol Concern submission regarding answers to the specific questions posed as well as some additional recommendations on alcohol pricing and drink driving limits (neither covered in the consultation document), advertising/marketing controls, and product labeling.

  • Government relations with a profit-making drug industry

The alcohol industry has fought tighter regulation at every juncture, with current and previous Governments evidently all too willing to prioritise industry interests over the concerns of the Royal Colleges of Medicine, The British Medical Association, numerous public health bodies and independent NGO’s, not to mention the overwhelming weight of published scientific research and epidemiological evidence. The current failing state of alcohol controls are a shameful testimony of the systematic failure of government to stand up to vested interests in the alcohol industry and their substantive lobbying resources, combined with an inability to demonstrate principled leadership and pursue public health policies that might incur short term political costs.

As with the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry is solely profit-motivated and therefore public health issues become a concern only when they threaten to impact on the bottom line. The industry will always to strive to concede as little market control to regulators as possible by deploying a now familiar menu of faux outrage and populist posturing (the nanny state against ‘a man’s right to have a drink in the pub’ etc.), dubious science (creating the false impression there is a genuine debate or controversy over issues like the efficacy of price and advertising controls), and token gestures (such as ending branding of child sport replica kits, setting up etc.). These efforts have been startlingly effective at distracting from, or delaying any meaningful regulatory legislation and have successfully kept what regulation has been passed at a voluntary level, meaning it can largely be ignored or sidelined to the point of being almost completely ineffectual.

The alcohol industry as a whole will never willingly accept any policies involving increased or stricter regulation that leads to a substantial decrease in consumption - as this will obviously lead to a consequent decrease in profits. Yet this is exactly what is required if issues of binge drinking and problem drinking in particular are to be addressed. It is important to remember that problematic and binge drinking constitute a significant proportion of alcohol industry profits; they are, quite simply, hugely profitable market sectors. Going on past experience - which demonstrates much of the industry not only avoiding the issue but actively encouraging unhealthy (but profitable) drinking behaviours - we have no reason to believe the alcohol industry when they claim to be serious about reducing such problems. Transform recommend that in the future they are kept at arms length in all development of public health policy and that some form of independent scrutiny of industry lobbying is established (and made public). The time for voluntary regulation of alcohol marketing has passed – it was a doomed experiment that has transparently failed on all fronts. The industry has held the balance of power in the policy-making equation for far too long, with systematic policy failures and disastrous public health outcomes there for all to see. It is time the brief was taken away from those that profit from maximising consumption and is returned to the public health experts whose goal is to minimise harm.

  • Alcohol and tobacco policy

Some comparisons between alcohol and tobacco policy are appropriate here. Whilst there are obviously differences in how each should be approached, in many key respects research from around the world illustrates that the basic regulatory principles and public health approaches that underlie them are remarkably similar – for example regards price controls, controls on marketing and promotion, controls on availability, and controls on where and when they may be consumed. Yet developments in alcohol policy seem to be lagging at least 10 to 15 years behind progress on tobacco regulation. Whilst tobacco policy is delivering dramatic improvements in public health outcomes, the situation with alcohol is deteriorating.

The reasons for this disparity are hard to fathom, after all, tobacco industry lobbying was arguably no less ferocious or well funded 10 or 15 years ago than today’s alcohol lobbying and PR machine. We can only assume that it is an issue of political fear, and that a failure of leadership is primarily to blame. These fears appear to be two fold; firstly the negative public reaction to increased prices and other regulatory market restrictions, and secondly concerns about potential negative consequences for the alcohol industry itself, which, we are informed in the consultation document’s second paragraph, turns over £40 billion a year, whilst creating only £20 billion in health and social harms. Maybe from a certain perspective this constitutes a reasonable piece of political maths, but from any ethical or public health analysis – it is entirely unacceptable.

This baffling situation begs the question of how bad the public health crisis with alcohol misuse must become before it is taken anything like as seriously as tobacco?

Gordon Brown demonstrates safe, sensible and social drug use

Related blog posts:

Transform submission to the DoH consultation on the future of tobacco control
related themes are tackled

The fault lines in current drug policy
comparing approaches to alcohol and illegal drugs

Another alcohol strategy: fine words, but spineless
commentary on the June 2005 alcohol strategy this latest consultation is a follow up to

Why pulling alcohol ads from kids replica kits is nowhere near enough
a rant about the cynical alcohol industry

Government complicity in the alcohol marketing scandal
the industry couldn't have got away with it for so long without a bit of help

Supercasinos, drugs, and alcohol prohibtion: more than a whiff of ministerial hypocrisy
our leaders just haven't figured out how to be consistent when regulating 'vice'


Chris said...

The Government are increasing penalties for cannabis users, because they want to turn the UK into a Police State. This is just the opportunity they need to criminalise millions of otherwise law abiding people

Steve Rolles said...

I don't think anyone is talking about criminalising alcohol - the debate is about regulating its use more responsibly. (as with other drugs - albeit for different reasons)