When is enough enough?

07 April, 2015

The Responsibility Deal between the drinks industry and the UK government has come under fire from academics pouring scorn on the apparently successful pledge by the industry to strip a billion units from the market.

In a pincer movement that amounts to an orchestrated attempt by the public health lobby to discredit the very idea of self-regulation, first the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group and then the Department of Health-funded Policy Innovation Research Unit came out with damning reports within a few days of each other.

SARG said the DoH’s own interim report on the industry’s pledge to remove a billion units of alcohol from the market was flawed and needed to be withdrawn, with revised targets set.

That report, published at the end of last year, showed that the industry’s target had been reached two years ahead of schedule with abv reductions, chiefly for beer, credited with cutting 1.3 billion units from the market.

But it’s flawed in three ways, according to SARG. One is an arcane issue around a change in the way HM Revenue & Customs calculated its data that might – but only might – reduce the units lost to 500,000. The true impact isn’t clearly understood. Neither will it necessarily prevent the industry hitting its target.

Another is that the interim report assumes that people faced with a choice of lower-abv products will simply switch to them from higher strength drinks. SARG suggests it will actually lead to other behaviours, including the possibility that consumers, particularly women, may be enticed into drinking alcohol by lighter options.

It construes lighter drinks, rather bizarrely, as a gateway drug, and suggests that, rather than shrinking the market, lower abv drinks may be widening it.

The third flaw in the DoH’s report, which has some truth in it, is that declines in the average strength of beer preceded the pledge. British Beer & Pub Association statistics going back to the year 2000 show a steady decline over a decade that dips sharply following the Responsibility Deal’s introduction in 2011.

This is where things get mixed up with the HMRC adjustments, but even SARG admits that the industry’s efforts must have had some effect. Its overall conclusion is that its “critique does not imply the billion unit pledge is bad for public health, simply that it may be too challenging to evaluate whether the target has been met”.

Perhaps it is right. It’s hard, arguably impossible, to entirely disentangle the impacts of specific Responsibility Deal initiatives from the multitude of other factors that determine the way people drink.

The interim report instead uses Nielsen and CGA data on abvs to calculate how much of the 1.9 billion units lost in the market between 2011 and 2013 was accounted for by reductions in strength, coming up with the 1.3 billion figure.

As SARG points out, detailed research into consumer response is not available, so what does it expect? Even in the unlikely event that innocent abstainers have been lured to drink by low-strength products, or existing drinkers have been topping up with them, it

doesn’t change the fact that overall consumption fell significantly, and that lower abvs played a part in that.

The Sheffield researchers demand more, though. To be valid, the billion unit pledge must be unsullied by commercial motivations, and in that they ask too much.

Average alcoholic strengths are in decline because consumers are more health conscious and think more about what they’re drinking. The industry is responding to that, knowing also that if a premium price can be maintained there’s more profit in lower abv products.

Which is why some premium lager brands have cut their abvs from 5% to 4.8% and introduced 4% versions. (New beers coming in below the 2.8% duty threshold have been less successful.)

For the industry, it’s no longer about chasing ever-greater volumes of alcohol, it’s about profit margin.

This market trend has happily coincided with the pledge, but does that, as SARG seems to suggest, amount to cheating? Does it invalidate the impact of unit reduction and erase any positive impact on public health?

A similar objection lies at the root of PIRU’s pair of analyses, published in Addiction journal.

Based on its own past research into what constitutes effective self-regulation, it demands that the industry’s initiatives go beyond “business as usual”. If you were doing it anyway, it doesn’t count. It’s not enough that you’ve taken

alcohol units out of the market – it has to hurt.

Neither SARG nor PIRU properly understands the drinks industry. It’s not an arm of public health, neither does it simply flog as much booze as it can and to heck with the consequences. It operates within

a highly regulated environment and its success, its commercial success, depends on it operating responsibly.

Exactly what this means, of course, is subject to constant negotiation and renegotiation. But working within the rules, and doing deals with the state, national and local, around the greyer areas, is all part of the game.

The latest initiative under the Responsibility Deal, an agreement by brewers and cidermakers to cease production of 50cl cans of high-strength beers and ciders, is an interesting example of going beyond “business as usual”. It would be interesting to know what PIRU makes of it.

There are certain people who are never going to be happy, though. The public health orthodoxy, led by the World Health Organisation, is that the drinks industry has no part to play in alcohol policy. All its efforts must therefore amount to naught.

Is this really in the interests of practical public health measures? If you want to have an impact on drinking culture, shutting out the people who make and sell the stuff, and who these days have an insight, too, into consumer behaviour, might not be such a good idea.




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