Alcohol Consumption Guidelines

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 28th June 2016.

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Photo of Byron Davies Byron Davies Conservative, Gower 4:56 pm, 28th June 2016

I am grateful for that intervention. I accept that we have to be very careful on that issue.

We should not be complacent. It is essential that public health advice keeps pace with advances in scientific understanding. Crucially, the communication of any guidance from the state must be seen to be above reproach and carry the confidence of industry and the public alike. However, I felt this debate was needed because I and several other hon. Members are concerned that the process by which the chief medical officer reaches their conclusion is flawed and has, in some ways, been hijacked by a group of campaigners with a clear anti-alcohol, total abstinence agenda.

Views are strongly held on this subject, which divides scientific opinion and the medical community. I recognise that that puts the CMO in a difficult position in making judgments about risk and in communicating sensible guidelines to consumers. We are bombarded with health advice from all quarters in this 24-hour social media age, and it is vital that anything published in an official capacity as advice from the Government’s chief medical officer is properly scrutinised and beyond reproach. I argue that the process that has been adopted, the clear conflicts of interest of the panel of so-called experts deployed to deliberate on these matters and the biased presentation of the findings have left a crisis of confidence in the new CMO guidelines among consumers, the media and industry. The Minister needs to address that in her response to the public consultation.

Let me deal with those points in turn. First, on the process adopted to undertake this review, the Department of Health guidance for expert group members states clearly:

“It is important to avoid any impression that expert group members are being influenced or appearing to be influenced by their private interests in the exercise of their public duties. All members therefore must declare any personal or business interests relevant to the work of the expert groups which may or may not be perceived by a reasonable member of the public to influence their judgment.”

Members of the guidelines development group set up to advise the CMO have been active policy advocates during the time in which the guidelines have been developed. Thanks to the investigative journalism of Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times, it has come to light that an academic who played a key role in drawing up the controversial new safe drinking limits, Professor Gerard Hastings, did not even declare his links to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a registered charity that receives most of its income from the Alliance House Foundation, which states that its aim is spreading the principle of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks. That is not quite putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank, but it is not far off.

Policy advocates such as Professor Hastings have taken strident campaigning positions. Many have a temperance or total abstinence axe to grind. They are clearly not neutral or, I argue, objective in their assessment of the costs and benefits of alcohol consumption. Indeed, the chief medical officer for England, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the proposed new alcohol guidelines, admitted that the experts

“found remarkably little evidence about the impact of guidelines, but we did not do them to have direct impact so much as to inform people and provide the basis for those conversations and for any campaigns that, for instance, Public Health England and others might run in the future.”

One member of the behavioural expert group, Dr Theresa Marteau, writing in the British Medical Journal, went further and stated that the new guidelines are

“unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking…but they may shift public discourse on alcohol and the policies that can reduce our consumption.”

Minutes from the guidelines development group meeting of 8 April 2015 state:

“It would be important to bear in mind that, while guidelines might have limited influence on behaviour, they could be influential as a basis for Government policies”.

There we have it. Never mind what consumers think about being told by the chief medical officer to think of cancer every time they hold a glass of wine or pour a can of beer, or that, as someone drinking a pint of beer a day, they are drinking more than they should. The not so well hidden agenda of the temperance activists is to influence Government policy to drive down alcohol consumption across the board. Wales has a strong Methodist and temperance tradition, which I respect, but I take issue with organisations such as the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which is funded directly by the temperance movement, helping to produce biased reports that are then given undue influence over the Government’s alcohol policy.

Having raised my concerns with the process adopted in undertaking the review, which I believe may have prejudiced the outcome and has certainly rendered the process lacking in credibility with consumers and the industry, I turn to the presentation of the review’s findings and, in particular, to the assertion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, the lowering of the recommended weekly levels for men in line with those for women, and the communication of risk. I believe that that assertion is at the heart of the flawed nature of the proposed guidelines and it is, in some respects, clearly deliberate on the part of campaigners. If the Government accept that there is no safe level of consumption, it becomes much easier to argue for more restrictions on alcohol availability,