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Brands get the better deal out of alcohol responsibility

The 6 health public interest organisations which abruptly withdrew from the government’s “responsibility deal” on alcohol appear to have thought they were pulling the rug from under health secretary Andrew Lansley’s love-in with industry. That’s certainly the implication of the timing of their announcement, which came 24 hours before Lansley unveiled pledges by 170 brands to support responsible drinking, eating, behaviour at work and in the home.

If that was their intention, they are sorely deceived; at least, in the short term. These public interest groups comprise sober-minded people: The Royal College of Physicians, the British Liver Trust, the British Association for the Study of the Liver, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the British Medical Association and Alcohol Concern. Yet they have acted like children, throwing their toys out of the pram because they cannot get what they want.

Worse, the gesture politics have actually back-fired. They have left Lansley’s new brand buddies looking adult, mature, responsible (albeit ever so slightly smug). Achieving clear unit labelling on more than 80% per cent of alcoholic drinks by 2013 may seem a fairly nugatory achievement in the wider public health battle against binge drinking and youthful alcoholism. But at least it’s a positive headline.

Whereas, the strategy of the breakaway NGOs is simply dumbfounding. Either they were extremely naive, or extremely cynical, in subscribing to the “responsibility deal” in the first place. Naive if they thought Lansley was going to do anything other than sign a concordat with industry – in lieu of (as he himself expresses it) expensive and time-consuming legislative restrictions. Or cynical, if they knowingly signed up for a project in which they had no confidence, merely to scupper it at a politically sensitive moment.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, formerly president of the Royal College of Physicians – and one of the defectors’ most articulate spokesmen – put his finger on their dilemma nearly 6 months ago. He signed up to the alcohol responsibility deal network even though he was sceptical of a “meaningful convergence between the interests of the industry and public health, since the priority of the drinks industry was to make money for shareholders, while public health demanded a cut in consumption… On alcohol, there is undoubtedly a need for regulation on price, availability and marketing – and there is a risk that discussions will be deflected away from regulation that is likely to be effective but would affect sales.”

In fact, Lansley had made it clear right from the start that he wanted a voluntary, not a regulatory, approach; and that the pricing of alcohol as a regulatory consumption mechanism was not part of the deal’s terms of reference.

Quizzed yesterday on why the 6 had pulled out, Gilmore observed: “It is not acceptable for the drinks industry to drive the pace and direction that […] public health policy takes.”

That may seem like pique (and indeed it is), but it shrewdly hints at a wider problem facing Lansley and the Department of Health. In the short term, cosying up to industry during these times of austerity might seem a smart and pragmatic thing to do. In the longer run, however, the DoH cannot afford to alienate its core constituency, the medical profession.

As one industry insider put it: “The health lobby is now screaming from the sidelines with placards on its chest. That doesn’t serve the public health interest; and it doesn’t serve ours, either. To paraphrase President Johnson, we’d rather have them inside the tent than outside it.”

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One Response to Brands get the better deal out of alcohol responsibility

  1. Thank god some bloggers can write. Thanks for this blog post!!

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