In a paper published today, Labour promised a clampdown on alcohol advertising and “targeted action on high strength, low-cost alcohol”.
It pledged to make public health a licensing objective, but the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said this would leave retailers battling rounds of red tape, confuse licensing officers and fail to address the problems of harmful drinking.
Labour also alluded to supporting minimum unit pricing and forcing retailers to strip shelves of beer and cider above a certain abv.
It pledged to prohibit the sale of 3-litre bottles of cider, slap a new higher duty band on “high-strength ciders” and impose mandatory warnings about the risk of drinking alcohol during pregnancy on labels.
Ed Miliband's party, which is ahead of the Tories by five points in one poll, also mooted a blanket ban on “super-strength beer and cider”.
The Portman Group said Labour’s proposals would amount to a pointless waste of taxpayers’ money.
Labour said: “Cheap, high-strength alcohol is now a permanent feature on the supermarket shelves including an endless wave of special offers and promotions, and such marketing has been shown to be particularly attractive to harmful and dependent drinkers, binge drinkers and young drinkers.
“We will focus on tackling the public health problems associated with excessive drinking and particularly drinking by children.
“We will do this by targeting the high-strength, low-cost products that are affordable to children, fuel binge drinking and do most harm to health, but this will not affect the vast majority of people.”
It also vowed to crack down on alcohol advertising, adding: “The Government should also do more to support parents trying to make the right decisions for their children. Modern marketing and advertising techniques, along with commercial pressures, can make this difficult."
But Henry Ashworth, chief executive at the Portman Group, said Labour would be wasting taxpayers’ money by targeting issues that the drinks industry is already voluntarily fixing.
He said: “The number of children drinking in this country is declining at an extraordinary rate – down 34% in the last decade. Life skills education, strict enforcement on underage sales and robust ID schemes are essential – all of which are fully supported, funded and championed by the drinks industry.
“As a country we’re making excellent progress and the youngest generation is leading the way. We must build on this positive change by working in partnership, not by imposing costly red tape.
“The drinks industry has already taken a billion units of alcohol out of the market, limited the number of units of alcohol in single serve cans and voluntarily labelled 80% of products with important health information, and over 90% with a warning about drinking when pregnant.
“Labour is proposing to spend taxpayers’ money and valuable government time legislating for something industry are already doing voluntarily.”
Labour spoke in general terms about blanket bans, but Ashworth said: “Alcohol harms vary significantly across regions and towns in the UK and are linked with a complex range of socio-economic factors.
“Strong partnership between local authorities, the police the drinks industry and the local community are widely accepted as the best way to achieve the targeted support these local areas need.
“We must move on from the old politics of one-size-fits-all policies that antagonise voters and responsible businesses and do nothing to redress the imbalance of health harms across the country.
“Labour needs to make a big comprehensive offer to work together with business, locally and nationally, to achieve things further and faster than through nanny state intervention.”
Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, echoed Ashworth’s sentiments.
He repeated the fact that pregnancy warnings already appear on more than 90% of labels, and with that figure constantly rising he said “we are not convinced that costly regulation to make this mandatory is necessary”.
On alcohol advertising, he said: “Alcohol advertising and sponsorship is already strictly regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group, including tough measures to prevent advertising to young people, and evidence shows that outright bans do nothing to tackle alcohol related harm.
“Without the significant investment from alcohol sponsorship in sport, and particularly grassroots programmes nationwide, many sports may not be viable in the long term.
“In this context, it is welcome that these policy proposals do not recommend further restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship, however we look forward to contributing to any Labour Government review to ensure that an evidence based approach is taken on this issue.”
Labour said it wants to make public health a licensing objective, but Beale said: “Retailers have already seen significant changes to licensing in recent years adding further burden and cost. In addition, where health has been introduced as a licensing objective it has often added confusion and there is little evidence it has reduced alcohol harm.
“The promotion of partnerships between the trade and local government is a proven way of tackling alcohol related harm in local communities, through voluntary schemes like Community Alcohol Partnerships. We also believe that this partnership approach with industry is cheaper, less bureaucratic and more effective. We would like to see a greater emphasis on continuing this approach.”