Tuesday, June 05, 2007

another alcohol strategy: fine words, but spineless

The new Alcohol strategy document is published today (approx 1 meg pdf):

Safe, Sensible, Sociable

There is alot of common sense in this document, lots of good ideas and good intentions, as in fact their was in the last one. But good intentions in an attractive document does not itself automatically translate into good policy making, or good policy outcomes.

There is also, regrettably, alot of the same spinning of policy failure as success that we have seen in policy on illegal drugs, mostly using the same trick: trumpeting largely meaningless 'process' successes, whilst playing down failures on those troublesome so-called 'outcome' measures. In today's Government press release for example, Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, master of the genre, gives good process:

"Since the previous alcohol strategy we have seen significant progress through the 'Know Your Limits' binge drinking publicity campaign, new enforcement powers in the licensing and Violent Crime Reduction Acts and the establishment of a new independent charity, the 'Drinkaware Trust', to promote sensible drinking. We are looking to build on these successes and for us all to pull together and call time on the way some of us drink"

The process-fest continues in the introduction of the strategy itself where we learn, fascinatingly, that as part of the success of the previous strategy:

"of the 41 actions in the original strategy, 26 have been delivered and a further 14 are underway."

Woohoo! On the outcome front we learn that 'levels of alcohol consumption no longer rising' , a fairly crap idea of 'success' if the goal is a fall in use. Stabilising at a level amongst the highest in Europe is nothing to crow about, just as the drug strategy celebrating heroin and cocaine use 'stabilising' (at a precipitous and unprecedented high, top of the Euro consumption league) is a bit lame given the goal of a 50% reduction (although, to be fair, they have till next March to achieve that).

you have to look far lower down the press release before you learn from the young people's Minister that:
"The evidence we've looked at suggests young people are drinking at a younger age and in greater quantities than before"
and plough through a couple of chapters beyond the exec summary of the report itself before you start to see miserable graphs like this one:

The other thing that strikes me is the feeling that the industry funded Portman Group PR front organisation is breathing down my neck as I read. Portman Group research is extensively quoted, and the industry funded drinkaware website is repeatedly highlighted (problem drinkers being presumably one of the populations least likely to access websites) , as is the industry funded drinkaware charity. Why should we rely on the alcohol industry to provide information to the public on alcohol and health? Er, conflict of interest anyone? By what factor, I wonder, does the industry marketing and advertising budget (none of which output contains any health warnings) eclipse the money spent on drinkaware? A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand?

We also have inexplicable calls for a public consultation on, of all things, alcohol pricing and promotion. Seriously, what do you think they will say? Odd that the Portman Group, (amonsgt lots of other process calls) should claim yesterday that:
“We welcome the independent review into whether price promotions contribute to harmful drinking. At the moment, the effect of such promotions is unknown. This review should collect the evidence before we can determine if any new restrictions are necessary."
Rubbish. Once again there is masses of evidence, undisputed by the WHO, the BMA, various royal colleges, Alcohol Concern etc. that low prices and promotions (the clue is in the word) 'promote' increased consumption. Again you have to wonder who the Government have been talking to, or rather, listening to. This stuff is obvious and well understood. Alcohol is relatively far cheaper than it was a few decades ago, and consumption has risen dramatically: the Government knows full well that increasing prices would dissuade use amongst key groups, and they are in the position to easily make the intervention. A public consultation will add nothing useful to this body of knowledge, it is simply an ingenious stalling tactic from the industry to protect its interests - which resolutely do not involve a reduction in consumption. It is symptomatic of our whole spineless alcohol policy that this Government has caved in to the industry, again, despite overwhelming evidence that they should listen to experts who are not also making money marketing potentially risky drugs to young people.

recent blogs on alcohol policy:

Why alcohol ads being pulled from kids replica kits is nowhere near enough.

Government complicity in the alcohol marketing scandal

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