Lately a string of media attention has paid critical attention to the level of alcohol industry influence over British Government policy. It all began with the revelation in the BBC television series Panorama, that industry representation on the Government and Partners Alcohol Working Group had in recent times grown from a few up to almost half of the 16 members.
Back in March of 2009, the committee was called the Alcohol Strategy Delivery Group consisting of 16 members, eight of which were non-civil servants and two of them were from the drinks industry – one from Bacardi and the other from retailer Morrisons. Five others came from a health background and the sixth represented local government.
Under the current government the composition changed dramatically. In December 2010, there were 10 members from the drinks industry (such as Heineken, Bacardi, Molson Coors, the British Beer and Pub Association and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association) and seven others. In March this year, there were 10 members from the drinks industry, eight of whom were present, and six others – three of whom were in the room. Consequently the group is now called the Government and Partners Alcohol Working Group, reflecting its new commercial partiality.
After the Panorama broadcast, the story was picked up by newspapers such as The Independent, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. In the coverage critics claim that the Coalition is pandering to the interests of the industry, potentially at the price of the nation’s health.
The Coalition claims that cooperation with the alcohol industry will be more effective than implementing new legislation. This is the reason that in March eight organizations pulled out of the Coalition’s Public Health Responsibility Deal – including the Institute of Alcohol Studies, Alcohol Concern, British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and the British Liver Trust. According to these organizations, they were not allowed to discuss the measures that would have most effect in curbing dangerous drinking, such as price rises and restricting promotion to children.
These organizations wrote to Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, saying the deal on alcohol – which includes voluntary agreements with industry – would not help reduce illness or deaths.
In reaction Mr. Lansley stated that imposing laws was often costly and that implementation could take years. A sentiment re-iterated by the Department of Health after the Panorama Broadcast. A spokesperson said: “We are committed to challenging the assumption that the only way to change people’s behavior is through adding to rules and regulations.
The Guardian has interviewed one of the former members of the Government and Partners Alcohol Working Group. Namely, Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern: ‘There is nothing wrong with governments choosing to listen to different stakeholders, but when representatives of the drinks industry are invited to form health policy, one has to question the value of this, particularly when the pursuit of making money from alcohol sales is at odds with government intentions to reduce alcohol harm,” he said.
According to Shenker the government needs to decide if it wishes to truly get to grips with the significant levels of alcohol harms in the UK, or stick with the status quo of allowing the drinks industry to call the shots. ‘It can’t have it both ways,’ Shenker concluded.