Time for the trade to toughen up?

22 January, 2010

T?he start of 2010 felt eerily familiar as the Health Select Committee released the findings of its inquiry into alcohol. Never has a report been so predictable.

It’s striking that despite being headline news for a day, this will go down as one of the smaller media firestorms the WSTA has dealt with in my time.

Maybe it was the novel PR strategy of trailing the findings twice between Christmas and new year?, or maybe it was the numbing familiarity of the proposals, but this wasn’t the game changer we feared.

Or was it? The British Medical Journal this week quotes Dr Nick Sher?on? of the Alcohol Health Alliance?: “Minimum pricing is now absolutely inevitable. Six or seven years ago, when this was first suggested, I thought it was an unachievable goal, but the momentum is there.” ?It is clear that, while common sense has prevailed this time, the health lobby is playing a long game.

Industry needs to be equally savvy.

As we enter an election year, here are a few observations from the past week:??1

The health lobby is as sophisticated as it accuses the industry of being?The main talking point of the Health Select Committee press release may have accused the government of being in the pocket of the industry, but this will drop jaws among anyone who has followed the past two years of duty rises.

What’s clear is that, far from being a collective of benevolent doctors, naïve in the ways of spin, the health lobby is full time, fully funded and fully co-ordinated, as the hacks on the receiving end of the barrage of co-ordinated press releases will attest to.


Alcohol is a zero sum game?The debate is no longer about benchmarks or moderation, it is about existence.

We are now hearing from health lobbyists not afraid to fly in the face of reality that “there is no safe level of alcohol”?.

The rhetoric is loaded in the same way as with tobacco or drugs. Any illusion that parts of industry may have had about common ground or an alliance with health lobbyists to promote a particular type of drink has been shattered.

Industry advocates for minimum pricing should also take note of the fact that you never hear anyone in government talk about minimum pricing without mentioning a tax hike in the same breath, to allow the government to claw back any additional profits.


Beware received wisdom?Anyone who has followed the committee’s inquiry will know that debating the link between alcohol price and harm or offering a more nuanced approach was treated like climate change denial.

In some circles it is completely accepted that minimum pricing will affect harmful drinkers’ consumption more than the rest of the population, no matter how counter intuitive this seems.

It is vital that industry isn’t afraid to rebut these statements.


Minimum pricing is dangerous territory for politicians?Early coverage of the report, in the Guardian specifically, covered its call for minimum pricing on the grounds that it would stop “people on lower incomes accessing alcohol?”.

Not surprisingly, this incredibly paternalistic statement was missing from the final report, but follow? its arguments through to their logical conclusion you can’t help but arrive at the idea that some people need to be priced out of alcohol. One part of the report refers fondly to the fact that in the 1940s a drink was unaffordable for the average working man.

We have to wonder what the constituents of the Labour majority committee make of this, or indeed, how trade unions would view this jab at their members.

The chair of the Health Select Committee has acknowledged that the reaction of voters is one reason the government has never taken action on alcohol pricing? – slightly missing the point of democracy, he recommends solving this by handing power on the issue to the chief medical officer.


Common sense prevails (sometimes)?The most interesting point about the report’s launch was the reaction to the committee’s definition of moderate alcohol consumption – six units a week. For some time the media and health NGOs have been at cross purposes, with each assuming they share a definition of “moderate drinking?” (?the government guidelines). Now journalists have realised the health definition is absurdly low, we must hope that they treat it accordingly.


Pleasure we can’t measure?We have seen endless reckonings of the costs caused by alcohol, with everything factored in from the productivity lost due to a hangover, to the grief of relatives after a bereavement.

How about the other side of the coin?? The value of drinks as a social lubricant,? as a benefit to health and a time?-honoured part of civilised social discourse all left uncounted.

When the Scottish government claims alcohol consumption costs every Scottish citizen £900 per year, we need to question not only the inflated costs but also the neglected benefits.

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