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Brands get the better deal out of alcohol responsibility

March 15, 2011
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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VAT reverse means healthy Innocent smoothies must remain a guilty pleasure

November 23, 2010

“It’s crazy,” says Innocent chief executive Richard Reed. “This ruling is definitely not in the interests of the nation’s health. It’s absurd that smoothies, which contain two portions of fruit and help people live more heathily are subject to VAT when junk food like burgers, chips and doughnuts are sold tax free.”

Yep, Richard. Not many of us will disagree with you there – unless of course we work for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the Treasury, which is slavishly serves.

Reed’s anguish and ire stem from a three-year legal wrangle over whether Innocent – and its customers – should continue to pay 17.5% VAT on its smoothie products, which it has just lost.

Only the healthy one on the left is subject to VAT

Reed chooses to classify smoothies as “liquified fruit salad.” It’s an oddity of our tax rules that, while people in this country need pay no VAT on “essential foods” such as the aforementioned burgers, “luxuries”, such as smoothies, are not exempt. But even if smoothies are categorised as a “beverage” (which, in all honesty, they more commonly are), Reed would still be in trouble with the tax authorities. Beverages – which for tax purposes are defined as “liquid commonly consumed to increase bodily liquid levels, to slake thirst, to fortify or to give pleasure” – are non-exempt. Unless they happen to be milk, tea or hot chocolate.

Where’s the fairness in that you, like Reed, might ask? Fairness, sadly, is not in the rule-book of an institution which joyfully plunders our just earnings, without so much as an apology when it is caught in the act. Its instinctive reaction on those rare occasions when it suffers a legal reverse is to vindictively rewrite the law in its own favour – lest future appellants succeed in pulling the same stroke.

This, apparently, is how the current eccentric definition of exempt and non-exempt beverages came about in the first place. It dates to a tax tribunal case in 1993, when HMRC (then Customs and Excise) was thwarted in its attempt to impose VAT on slimming aid Bio-Light.

Someone really should push Health Secretary Andrew Lansley a little harder. It’s time this government did more joined-up thinking on food policy, and Lansley leaning on George Osborne at the Treasury is where they should start. There is an inherent contradiction in the DoH’s position. On the one hand, it seems to expect the food industry to pour infinite resource into propagating healthy eating. And on the other, it lifts not a finger to criticise another department of state when it actively undermines that goal by reinforcing an out-of-date and absurd tax regime, with a view to screwing every last penny out of the consumer.


Abolition of FSA will give food industry more shout

July 12, 2010

Come on, we all knew a Tory government was going to abolish the FSA. It’s just we got the wrong one in our sights. How devious of them to lead us up the garden path like that!

While the incompetent Financial Services Authority (a watchdog steeped up to its dewlaps in responsibility for the banking crisis) has got off lightly with a root-and-branch reform instead of threatened abolition, the other FSA, the Food Standards Agency, which was threatened with root-and-branch reform but not abolition, is the one that is actually going to get the chop. Health secretary Andrew Lansley, we are told, will shortly announce that the organisation set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis will have its regulatory remit (safety and hygiene in the food chain) devolved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its responsibilities for advising on public health and diet (primarily the obesity debate) given to the Department of Health (DoH).

The immediate aim is to save about £1bn by breaking up a department with 2,000 people and a budget of £135m. However, commentators on both sides of the food divide have been quick to discern a not-very-hidden ideological agenda.

Nannyism: Out of fashion

With one stroke, Lansley has struck a lethal blow at the heart of nannyism. Even the food industry seems a little taken aback by the suddenness of the blow. And yet it is entirely consistent with Lansley’s promise – implicit in his decision last week to give industry a bigger role in Change4Life – to substitute “nudge” (persuasive technique) for cumbersome and expensive legislative coercion.

A happy by-product of this policy, so far as the food, soft drinks and alcohol companies are concerned, is that it puts them more firmly in the driving seat. We will hear no more of “traffic lights”, the simplistic but consumer-friendly food labelling system which the FSA has espoused with such zeal, much to the annoyance of Big Food. Similarly, I imagine the threat of a TV advertising watershed imposed on certain food and alcohol categories is definitively a thing of the past; and the medical caucus will – for now – be more hesitant about calling for an outright ban on the consumption of alcohol.

Critics of Lansley’s plan will no doubt point to the conflict of interest inherent in placing regulatory control within a department, Defra, which is also responsible for the supply side. One of the reasons for the FSA’s foundation as an independent body was the perceived inadequacy of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – Defra’s predecessor – in dealing with the BSE crisis, thanks to its cosiness with farmers. But that’s one for the critics. For the food and alcohol sectors, the FSA’s abolition marks a famous victory, not least in the communications war.

UPDATE: Some furious back-pedalling by Andrew Lansley’s special adviser has led to the following terse statement being issued on the DoH website this afternoon: “No decision has been taken over the Food Standards Agency (FSA). All Arms Length Bodies will be subject to a review.” Meaning? The electric chair will have to wait, but it’s definitely (or should that be indefinitely?) Death Row for the FSA. Emasculation by innuendo. NICE next?


Changed4Life – policy U-turn puts advertisers in the driving seat

July 8, 2010

For the health lobbyists, it was a rout; for advertisers – and especially those in the food, soft drinks and alcohol sectors – a triumph and an indisputable turning point.

Lansley: A Mars a day may help you work, rest and play

Yesterday’s landmark speech by health secretary Andrew Lansley left not a shadow of a doubt about the government’s future stance on the obesity debate. Nannying – in the sense of strict legislative curbs – is out and “nudge” – the employment of persuasion techniques to mould consumer behaviour – is definitively in.

In practice it means that a fiscally-challenged Government intends to withdraw some public funding from the 3-year Change4Life programme, leaving business to take up the financial slack. Almost without saying, this puts the members of the Business4Life initiative in an unprecedentedly powerful position.

As if to underline the point more graphically, Lansley made specific reference to some of the main consortium members in his redefinition of government policy:

“It is perfectly possible to eat a Mars bar, or a bag of crisps or have a carbonated drink if you do it in moderation, understanding your overall diet and lifestyle. Then you can begin to take responsibility for it and the companies who are selling you those things can be part of that responsibility too.” Companies which include Mars, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola (owner of Walkers Crisps).

What this means for the health lobby was bleakly summed up by Tam Fry, the feisty leading-edge of the National Obesity Forum. “NOF is horror-struck at Mr Lansley’s remarks. It sees them as nothing other than a bare-faced request for cash from a rich food and drink industry to bail out a cash-starved Department of Health campaign, ” he says. I might scruple at the “nothing other” bit, but find it hard to disagree with his argument, as far as it goes.

Lansley’s new concordat is at once an opportunity and a trap for the food and drink industry. It’s an opportunity to exercise more responsibility in what it sells, and how it sells it, to an increasingly wary consumer. As Fry points out, many food manufacturers continue to sell products whose salt, sugar, and fat content is well in excess of Food Standards Agency guidelines. There are signs of greater self-restaint, particularly in the area of trans fats, but it is slow and grudging. The science surrounding obesity meanwhile moves on, and with it – if diffusely and haphazardly – the consumer perception of what is acceptably healthy and what is not. Only this week, for example, a study found that children who are obese tend to exercise less, because they are already overweight; rather than because their lack of exercise causes them to put on weight. In other words, from the complex miasma of obesity’s causes – among them poor education, lack of exercise and poverty  – junk food has once more emerged as an all-too-visible spectre.

So, when Lansley advises Business4Life to reach for the till, it should reach for the till. But its members must also remember that what they are doing will lack all public credibility if it is unaccompanied by measurable changes in the behaviour of the food and drink companies themselves. This is not an opportunity for coasting.


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