Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:48 pm on 18 October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 12:48, 18 October 2007

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Portman Group, whose work is cited in the alcohol harm reduction strategy. I was a member of the Prime Minister's strategy unit group which advised on the first edition of the strategy in 2004, and am a former trustee of the Alcohol Education and Research Council. I am currently a paid non-executive adviser to Brown-Forman, a global wines and spirits company.

The revised strategy published earlier this year is by necessity a wide-ranging document, covering health, education, law enforcement and industry issues. In it, the Government acknowledge that some progress has been made; for example, it reports a drop in under-age sales and fewer alcohol-related violent crimes. I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on their belated but nevertheless welcome commitment to spend £10 million next year on a sustained responsible drinking advertising campaign. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the police need to be adequately resourced to carry out certain aspects of law enforcement which are central to the strategy. Drink driving is an obvious example, while another is the criminal offence known as proxy purchase, which is when adults buy alcohol to pass on to under-age drinkers, yet this is seldom targeted or enforced.

I should like to focus the rest of my contribution on just two aspects of this broad debate, which I hope will help to put it into a proper perspective. The first is to do with evidence, and the second concerns the role of the drinks industry. On the first, it has become a government mantra to say that policies must be evidence-based. This is important not only for the integrity of policy, but also in order to secure and retain the confidence of the public and others with whom the Government wish to work in partnership to tackle alcohol misuse, such as NGOs, practitioners and those who produce, advertise and sell alcohol. When the requirement to be evidence-based is disregarded, sometimes blatantly, the Government's authority is weakened and consumers are confused.

The recent fiasco over advice on drinking in pregnancy is a case in point. The Government announced that although there was no new scientific evidence to justify a departure from existing guidance that pregnant women who choose to drink should consume no more than one to two units once or twice a week, they were nevertheless changing the advice towards a zero-consumption approach on the dubious grounds that women would find it easier to understand a simpler message. This volte-face was widely criticised by media commentators, and only last week was further challenged by a draft recommendation from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that pregnant women might safely drink up to 10.5 units a week after the first trimester. This degree of discrepancy on such an important and high-profile aspect of potential alcohol harm is intolerable. Credible, authoritative advice must be agreed and communicated urgently.

The industry is being asked by the Government to agree to a voluntary labelling scheme which includes information in line with government advice on drinking in pregnancy. But why should the industry put its reputation on the line and even risk legal action by carrying misleading or inaccurate information? One of the reasons the industry has been so committed to working with the Government since 1995—when all the current sensible drinking guidelines were first introduced, not just those on pregnancy—is that the guidelines were determined for the first time as a result of detailed scrutiny of extensive scientific research. The guidelines are balanced and evidence-based. The industry accepts that some people most certainly need to drink less, and the Government accept that moderate drinking generally causes no harm and may even bring some health benefits. We need to have the same degree of clarity on drinking—or not—in pregnancy.

The other point I should like to make about evidence is that the selective or distorted reporting of statistics and research findings can often create a groundswell of calls for this or that measure which then obscures the debate and risks diverting the Government from properly targeted policies. For example, who would have thought from reading the media coverage over the past year that current licensing statistics from the DCMS indicate that only 2 per cent of the UK's licensed premises have 24-hour licences, or that out of the 3,000 premises that make up that 2 per cent, only 120 are pubs—and I am told that 70 per cent of those are in Dorset. The other 2,880 premises are mainly hotels, supermarkets and convenience stores, yet the impression given is that so-called "24-hour drinking" is the rampant scourge of every town and city centre, and that irresponsible pubs are at the heart of the problem. I am not suggesting for a moment that there is no problem with drunken public behaviour, but only that it needs a proportionate response and that pubs in general should not be the scapegoats.

Who would have thought that, according to robust data from Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, overall consumption has actually been falling in the UK since 2004 or, as the General Household Survey shows, that there are more teenage abstainers now than ever before, and that even the number of young people aged 16 to 24 who drink at harmful levels has dropped since 2003. Admittedly, nearly a third of this age group still drink too much—so it is not a problem to be dismissed, by any means—but the movement is in the right direction at last, although you would not believe it judging by the media or the calls for ever-increasing restrictive policies from various groups and practitioners.

Respect for the evidence cuts both ways, of course. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, the Government are currently commissioning research into whether there is a link between alcohol harm and the pricing, discounting and promotion of drinks. If any credible detrimental connection is established, the industry will have a duty to respond constructively and swiftly; and if competition law restricts the industry's room for manoeuvre, the Government must assist and jointly find a way through the apparent impasse. By the same token, those who are already champing at the bit and calling for all manner of further restrictions on price, promotion and availability of alcohol, should wait for the evidence and not pre-judge the results.

I also want to mention the broader role of the drinks producers in helping the Government to implement the harm reduction strategy. The World Health Organisation called on Governments to consult industry as part of its global resolution on the harmful use of alcohol. The Government deserve credit for their dialogue with the industry over the initial strategy, acknowledging it as a stakeholder and not only a consultee. It is very important that this dialogue be maintained and strengthened if the industry is to deliver what the Government hope it will in the second wave of action on the strategy.

The industry often gets it in the neck as an easy target to blame, but until now it has provided the resources for more sustained national campaigning and information to promote the Government's own sensible drinking message than any other source. In particular, the drinkaware consumer website address now appears on more than £150 million-worth of TV, cinema and print advertising every year; on the labels of 3 billion cans and bottles; and in thousands of supermarkets, shops and pubs. Lest anyone should think this a small or futile gesture, the drinkaware website gets more than 2.5 million hits every month. So the industry is clearly succeeding in driving consumer traffic to this excellent source of user-friendly information and advice.

The aims of the strategy will be achieved all the more quickly and efficiently if the Government and the industry continue to work together on common ground. Alcohol-related harm is in the interests of neither.