A step forward with the new UK alcohol strategy...

by Peter Anderson

Congratulations to Prime Minister Cameron and the UK government for putting forward an alcohol strategy that demonstrates joined up action to a common problem, is aligned with evidence, and consistent with public health strategies. Its jewel in the crown is the proposal for an introduction of a minimum price per gram of alcohol. This would mean that the whole of the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, together with the Republic of Ireland may all come aligned in the same direction, with estimated major immediate and sustained benefit in saving lives, reducing crime, benefiting employment, and, even giving extra income for the alcohol industry.

In the area of availability, the new strategy turns round the ineffectual approaches of previous strategies by strengthening local powers to control the density of premises licensed to sell alcohol, including a new health-related objective for this purpose.

With advertising, the strategy could and should have been stronger. Whilst recognizing the importance of advertising as a health determinant, it continues along the path of self-regulation, something which does not and cannot work. The bulk of commercial communications are now channelled through social media, which are accessible to all. With social media, self-regulation becomes irrelevant – advertisements pulled because of breach of codes, simply live on through social media. Self-regulation, if anything, acts to stimulate, not constrain creative imagination – as with tobacco, the only effective solution will be an outright ban.

In its messages to the alcohol industry, the strategy offers a most refreshing approach, leading us away from social corporate responsibility approaches, which are just window dressing, and away from trivial commitments for action towards something that might make a difference. The strategy notes that “the alcohol industry has a direct and powerful connection and influence on consumer behaviours: people consume more when prices are lower; marketing and advertising affect drinking behaviour; and store layout and product location affect the type and volume of sales.” The strategy calls for the industry to take eight billion grams of alcohol out of the market by 2015. Similar to salt reduction initiatives, it can do this by providing beverages with lower alcohol content, something that Heineken is already doing in the UK market, which will bring “significant benefits for public health, reduce crime, and demonstrates the positive contribution that industry can make.” The strategy will incentivize this approach by taxing beer more proportional to its alcohol content.

In the wider sense, the greatest achievement of the UK strategy could be through a domino effect. When one or two countries introduced smoke-free pubs and bars, there was such an effect with other countries following, providing political momentum to safeguard the public from the harms of tobacco smoke. If the whole of the United Kingdom introduces a minimum price per gram of alcohol, other countries may understand that it can be done and follow suit.

The UK strategy also has a message for the European Commission: move more strongly to tax wine, develop a strategy that is evidence-based, and relate to the alcohol industry in a more mature and meaningful way to avoid time wasted on trivial and meaningless commitments.