Alcohol

Part of Supplementary Estimates 2009-10 — Department of Health – in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Howard Stoate Howard Stoate Labour, Dartford 2:02 pm, 10th March 2010

It is very important that we are having this debate, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Barron, who chaired the Health Committee admirably and enabled it to make an in-depth study of the whole issue of alcohol. We obtained some extremely valuable papers in evidence, which the Committee and our researchers found useful in producing what I believe is a helpful report.

It is important that we distinguish between ordinary drinking, which nearly all of us do, and the problem drinking of a minority, although a significant minority, of people in this country. Alcohol has always played an important role in our society. It has lubricated the wheels of politics and business for as long as anyone can remember and helped million of Britons to cement friendships and relationships. Even the British Medical Association, which is one of the most vehement critics of our drinking culture, recognises that. In written evidence for our inquiry, it wrote:

"Alcohol in moderation has some very positive social and personal effects. It is not true that the only safe route for most people is total abstinence."

That is very well put.

Although we have always spent a long time as a nation thinking, speaking and writing about alcohol-I do not think any country has more expressions for being drunk than we do-we now fetishise alcohol in a way that was not apparent 50 or even 25 years ago. The alcohol industry now spends between £600 million and £800 million a year on drinks marketing and advertising. It has been phenomenally successful in implanting in Britain's collective consciousness the idea that drinking alcohol is synonymous with social, sexual, physical and material success. It has succeeded brilliantly in tapping into our deepest and most heartfelt aspirations and desires, and suggesting that alcohol can help us meet them, even if just for a brief, escapist moment on a Friday or Saturday night. As a result of those efforts, alcohol is now seen by millions of young people as an essential lifestyle prop that can help confer instant glamour and open the door to success and popularity.

Nor, thanks to the drinks industry, is alcohol consumption limited to a few specific, well-defined periods in the week any more. As the British Society of Gastroenterology and British Association for the Study of the Liver pointed out in their written evidence, we have contrived in recent years to superimpose the southern European culture of regular heavy drinking to accompany food on our long-standing Anglo-Saxon culture of feast and binge drinking. We are now, as they put it,

"reaping the consequences in terms of liver deaths".

In fact, there has been a gradual merging of drinking cultures across Europe. Only a few years ago French experts were confidently predicting that a binge drinking culture was unlikely to take root there, as alcohol was culturally integrated. They said that the French, having been introduced to alcohol at an early age, drank in a controlled fashion, if perhaps a little too regularly, and that getting visibly and audibly incapacitated was seen as neither cool nor particularly impressive. The French have always taken that attitude.

However, although the overall level of alcohol consumption in France is declining, as we have heard today, "le binge drinking" among young people has emerged as a real problem and a raft of legislation has been proposed to tackle it. In fact, the French have far more draconian advertising laws than we do. It is extremely difficult now for the French to advertise alcohol in any social context at all. They can merely present the brand, and that is all they can do. They cannot associate it with any particular culture or with glamour.

The French phenomenon has been described as part of a "globalisation of behaviour" evident in all 27 EU member states, with teenagers increasingly seeking instant intoxication as an end in itself. However, attitudes can change in the other direction as well. The best example that I can think of is in Germany, where beer consumption has declined dramatically in the past decade. It was the capital of Europe for beer drinking, but it has now lost its crown to the Czech Republic. Health considerations have certainly played a part in that decline, but the changing image of beer has been the most important thing. Beer drinking is now seen by many young people in Germany as a staid old man's pursuit and distinctly uncool. Consequently, the Germans have shifted their drinking patterns far more towards alcohol such as spirits.

That shows that although we can never change young people's desire to drink and to experiment with alcohol, the image of alcohol is very important in shaping what, when, where and-crucially-how much they drink. That is why we need to exert far greater control over how alcohol is marketed and advertised in this country. It is not an altruistic desire to support the sports industry or music scene that has led Carling, for example, to sponsor the Football League cup, Rangers and Celtic football clubs and, until recently, the Reading festival and various leading music venues across London. It is motivated instead by the company's self-confessed desire to

"become the most respected youth brand".

In sponsoring music events, for instance, Carling states that it wishes to "piggyback" on the success of the band-

"the heroes at the venue"- and use them as a means of "engaging customers' emotions". As Professor Gerard Hastings, who advised our Committee, wrote:

"Sponsorship is a way of raising brand awareness, creating positive brand attitudes and building emotional connections with consumers. Its power comes not from direct advertising messages but through associating the brand with an already engaging event or celebrity, and gaining power and credibility in the process."

That is a pertinent point.

A focus on football and live music is designed to grab the attention of young male teenagers and increase the likelihood of their making Carling one of their first alcohol purchases. In choosing voluntarily to remove its logo from child-size replica Rangers and Celtic shirts two years ago, Carling more or less admitted that the association between the clubs and the brand had a direct and positive influence upon young people's attitudes towards the Carling brand. Mark Hunter, the chief executive of Coors, Carling's parent company, said at the time:

"Coors and the Old Firm clubs have a long track-record in working together to champion responsible drinking. This means ensuring that sponsorship is not improperly targeted at people under the legal drinking age and using the combination of one of the UK's leading brands and football to promote responsible consumption by adults."

Carling is perfectly content, however, for that same group of young people to watch Rangers and Celtic on TV or in person at Ibrox or Parkhead, with every player's shirt in the whole stadium festooned with the Carling logo. That apparently does not constitute "improper targeting" in the eyes of either Carling, the clubs or the football authorities. If there is logic there, I am afraid I cannot spot it.

In my view, the Government need to wake up to the way in which the alcohol industry is grooming potential young drinkers through music and sport. That flies directly in the face of the stated intentions of Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group to protect children and young people from advertising and marketing.

The only sure way to tackle the problem is removing the alcohol industry's ability to target young people in that way. Banning alcohol advertising and sponsorship from events that are attended by children and young people, or watched by them on TV, is one way to enable young people to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol.

When the Committee took evidence, we heard of the change in marketing practices towards viral marketing and the use of the internet as a means of getting the message across. We were assured by witnesses that there was protection for young people, because they had to access a privileged site, which was of course difficult to do. However, during the inquiry-in front of the witnesses-I used my internet-enabled phone to get on to the relevant website. I was asked to enter my date of birth to ensure that I was over 18, so I entered the date 30 February 1980 and was allowed entry. I entered a completely fictitious address, which could not possibly have been logical, but the site was happy with that. Therefore, those safeguards to protect young people clearly do not work. One can enter any date of birth, and site will be quite happy to allow access its content.

We need to ensure that when the industry says it is cleaning up its act, it is doing so and behaving responsibly. I do not attack the industry lightly, and I do not believe the whole of it is to blame, but it clearly needs to get its house in order if we are to protect young people. The market is changing, as is the way in which things are advertised, and there is far less control over internet and viral advertising, so it is even more important that firms act responsibly to ensure that young people are not exposed to the increasing glamorisation of alcohol, thereby leading themselves inevitably to increased health risks in future.