Drinks industry toasts Commons health select committee’s defeat

March 19, 2010

Audible sighs of relief are rippling through the Advertising Association and drinks trade body The Portman Group now that the Government has summarily kicked into touch some of the sillier proposals recommended by the House of Commons health select committee last January.

Especially retrograde was the suggestion of a 9pm watershed for drinks ad, which was last howled down in 2006. And even more worrying, the naive recommendations that could have hamstrung major sponsored events. But the wooden spoon for unworldliness must surely go to recommendation 18 (if you can bear to read the detail here it is), that proposed the drinks industry be monitored by an independent statutory watchdog modelled on the  – er – Financial Services Authority, which has done such sterling service in the name of bank regulation. Haven’t these MPs come across the new cross-party mantra of “partnering” with industry yet?

Professor Hastings: Unacknowledged legislator?

Not that anyone will want to gloat in public about this, but I suspect  a great deal of private glee is also to be had from the knowledge that some of these shelved proposals seemed ghost-written into the report by Professor Gerard Hastings, the bête noire of free-market regulators.

One other thing. The Government’s robust defence of the existing self-regulatory mechanism and rejection of many of the health committee’s findings provide crushing evidence of how feeble these select committees are (with the exception of the public accounts committee – a very different specimen). But beware. Cross-party-endorsed reform may be on the way, emasculating the whips’ current power over committee selection. Meaning it won’t be so easy for HMG to ride roughshod over any findings with which it does not agree. Good for democracy perhaps, but not so good for the UK drinks industry.

There’s only one solution to doctors’ health messages: ban them

January 22, 2010

Better for your daily health requirements

Not long ago, if you bit into a Kraft Oreo, munched some McDonald’s fries or tucked into a Kentucky Fried Chicken leg, the chances were you would be ingesting a nasty, toxic substance called trans fatty acid. Consume enough of it and it won’t do your health any good at all. It’s known to cause heart problems, by promoting “bad” cholesterol at the expense of “good”; and it’s also a suspect in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and infertility.

In small, probably harmless, doses, trans fatty acid is found in nature – especially in dairy products. The reason intake of the stuff reached epidemic proportions was because it can be synthesised easily and makes a cheap and superficially attractive alternative to butter-based saturated fats and lard. As such, it provides a useful shortening agent in baked products and can also be counted upon to extend shelf-life well beyond its natural span.

It is not a new discovery. The processed food industry has been using it, in increasing concentrations, for most of the past 100 years. The bio-chemical formula was first adopted by a UK company which later became a part of Unilever. In the same year, 1909, Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights and promptly launched Crisco, a shortening product that was based on hydrogenated cotton-seed oil (it still exists, but under different ownership, and in a different formulation). At the time, nothing was known of the lethal side effects of trans fatty acids. Indeed, the delusion continued to exist well into the sixties that trans fatty acids, found in various margarine products, were not only cheaper, but actually better for you.

What was the medical profession doing all this time? For most of the past century, it was being about as ineffectual in exposing the ill-effects of these fats as it was in combatting the well-known health-hazards of tobacco and alcohol. This was not because of a total absence of pathological evidence. On the contrary, indications of a possible connection with cancer began to emerge as early as the 1940s. There was reasonable doubt; it’s just that no one seemed to want to voice it in public.

I mention all this because doctors  have now adopted a high moral tone in calling for the banning of these man-made fats. The fact is, the horse has already bolted. Although Britain hasn’t – unlike Denmark, New York, California, Australia, Switzerland and Austria – actually prohibited the stuff, a quiet self-denying ordinance has already been put in place by UK food manufacturers and retailers. The latter made a pledge back in 2006 to eliminate it from all their own-label brands, which they have now fulfilled and Big Food is beating a hasty retreat. For this we have a public health campaign, BanTransFats.com, and the so-called Project Tiburon, to thank. It originated in 2003 with a court case against Kraft in California which then snowballed. I don’t recall the British medical profession being particularly vocal at the time. We had to wait until July 29, 2006 for an editorial in the British Medical Journal promoting “better labelling,” which seems to have stopped well short of calling for trans fats to be banned.

There’s nothing quite like jumping on a bandwagon, however, once someone else has got it rolling for you. A similar “bannist” tendency may be seen in the medical profession’s approach to alcohol advertising. No finer example of the genre exists than Professor Gerard Hastings’ recent polemical article in the BMJ.

His proposals for tightening up advertising regulation (to include among other things a 9pm watershed, digital and sponsorship restrictions) bear an uncanny resemblance to the recommendations just published by the Commons health select committee. Indeed, if I did not know better, I would have thought he had single-handedly masterminded them. So I don’t underestimate his influence as a lobbyist.

And yet, closely argued though the paper is, it somehow misses the point. Whatever impact marketing communications may have on increasing consumption of alcohol, it is scarcely the principal villain behind our lamentable ‘binge culture’. A better place to look for major remedial correction would be our unhinged drinking hours, below-cost supermarket offers (which most brands abhor) and a decline in social standards (not all of which can be blamed on the advertising industry). Hastings, however, is not notably interested in any of this. The true nature of his agenda is revealed in the last paragraph of his article, where he cites former advertising luminary David Abbott’s views on tobacco advertising. The only really satisfactory solution to alcohol advertising is to ban it, it seems.

MPs bank on the FSA regulatory model to beat binge-drinking

January 8, 2010

I seem to remember Oliver Cromwell once tried to ban mince pies. Reading the recommendations of the long-awaited House of Commons health select committee report on alcohol abuse, I get the impression that a number of our MPs have been infected with the same joyless dedication to futile causes as Cromwell’s not-so-merry men in the Long Parliament.

Do they really think that putting a minimum price of 50p on a unit of alcohol will help to staunch binge-drinking? Ireland levies still higher taxes than us on alcohol, yet is the biggest binge-drinking nation in the EU (Luxembourg maybe excepted).

Do they really think that introducing a 9pm watershed ban for TV advertising will do the trick for under-18 year olds (as if most are tucked up in bed by then, have never used a PVR, or heard of internet protocol TV)?

Do they really think they have any effective power over what messages go onto off-shore social media websites?

Do they really think the ultimate solution is to take regulation out of the hands of the Advertising Standards Authority and the industry-funded Portman Group and place it with a “Financial Services Authority (FSA) style body”? As if there were no very deep irony in that suggestion?

Sadly they do. It is the “FSA” proposal in particular that sums up the committee’s retrograde, quixotic thinking. Retrograde, because it suggests that statutory regulation is the way forward, when all the momentum in advertising regulation over the past few years has been achieved through toughening up self-regulation and creating a partnership between industry and government. Change4Life and Business4Life provide an illuminating example of how this concordat has worked in another contentious sector. Yet it is no isolated instance. The drinks industry itself is engaged in an identifiably similar  partnership with the 5-year Drink Aware programme. These new proposals simply throw a spanner in the works of self-regulation, with unsettling implications for the broader marketing community.

The committee’s argument for departing from the new orthodoxy seems to be that alcohol is a special case demanding rigorous vigilance of the sort uniquely provided by the statutory regulator overseeing financial services. Which planet have all these MPs been living on recently? The FSA is a discredited body. It showed itself to be corrupt and ineffectual as one of the “tripartite” regulators of the UK financial system during the late credit crunch. Although it has since been radically overhauled under new chairman Adair Turner, reform may earn it no more than a stay of execution. The Conservatives, who seem increasingly likely to form the next government, have made it clear they intend to abolish the FSA and roll a number of its functions into the Bank of England.

No matter. The probable trajectory of most, if not all, of these proposals is into the waste-paper bin of history, for the reason mentioned above: an imminent change of government. Cursory examination of Tory policy on this matter (the Public Health Commission) suggests that Cameron and co will attempt to streamline regulation in the food, soft drinks and alcohol sectors into a single policy framework guided by a so-called Responsibility Deal with the relevant industry sectors. In other words, they are wedded to the concept of self-regulation, albeit of a more vigilant, effective variety. Ah yes, you may object: aren’t you missing the point? The House of Commons health committee is an independently constituted body of MPs which owes no allegiance to the Government of the day. Its proposals are likely, therefore, to hold as much authority under a Conservative government as a Labour one. Well, yes and no. The MPs themselves may be relatively independent backbenchers, but the complexion of the committee, and who chairs it, is indirectly influenced by who is in power. Which will have an ideological bias on any future recommendations it arrives at.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that alcoholism and binge drinking aren’t serious social problems deserving government intervention. On the contrary, some of the committee’s suggestions are clearly constructive. Certainly more of the industry’s estimated £800m a year spent on advertising and sponsorship could be usefully channelled into the promotion of public health. Other ideas, however, are pure lunacy. The recommendation, for example, that no event should be sponsored by a drinks advertiser if more than 10% of its attendees are under 18 would have a disastrous impact upon music festivals and, more importantly, sport  – if ever implemented.

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