The alcohol industry must do more to reduce alcohol harm or it “risks being seen as paying only lip service”, a group of MPs has said in a report released today, writes Gurjit Degun. The Health Committee said it does not believe that participation in the Responsibility Deal, which involves a series of pledges such as providing more alcohol unit information and reducing the strength of drinks, should be optional. It backed minimum pricing but called for a greater evidence base ahead of its implementation and a sunset clause on the measure. The Committee was responding to the Government’s Alcohol Strategy, released in March, which called for measures such as minimum pricing and improved powers to stop sales to drunks, and gave support to the Responsibility Deal. The Health Committee report said: “The Committee does not believe that participation by the alcohol industry in the Responsibility Deal should be regarded by anyone as optional – we regard it as intrinsic to responsible corporate citizenship. “We do not believe that reducing the alcohol in some lagers from 5% to 4.8%, for example, will have any significant impact. If the industry does not bring forward more substantial proposals than this it risks being seen as paying only lip service to the need to reduce the health harms caused by alcohol.” Committee chairman Stephen Dorrell MP said the industry is doing the bare minimum. He added: “We don’t think the industry has a sufficiently well-developed sense of what it needs to trade responsibly.” The report said the alcohol industry needs to acknowledge that its advertising messages do have an effect on attitudes to alcohol and on consumption if it wishes to be seen as a serious committed partner in the Responsibility Deal. “The challenge to the industry is to stop explaining that advertising does not have an effect on broader market perceptions of alcohol,” explained Dorrell. “It clearly does. If advertising doesn’t create a positive impression around a brand, why is the shareholder spending money on the advertising?” The Committee recommended that Public Health England, acting independently of the Government, should evaluate the effectiveness of the Responsibility Deal. The Committee supported minimum pricing but said it recognises that there is little evidence about the effects of different price levels. It calls on the Government to build its case for the policy by establishing direct links between pricing and alcohol harm. Dorrell said: “The Committee supports the decision to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol, but the Government needs to recognise that setting the price is not a one-off event. A transparent process must be put in place in order to ensure that the price level is evidence-based and is monitored over time to assess its effectiveness. “We also recommend that there should be a ‘sunset clause’ on the implementation of a minimum price so that it only remains in place if it is shown to be effective in reducing harmful drinking.” Portman Group chief executive Henry Ashworth said: “Whilst we are pleased the Committee commends the Responsibility Deal approach, it is deeply disappointing that they have failed to understand the significance of the innovative unit reduction pledge, supported by all major producers, retailers, and leading wholesalers who have committed to lower the alcohol content of leading brands, and introduce new ranges of lower alcohol products.” Wine and Spirit Trade Association chief executive Miles Beale said: “It is premature to pre-judge the impact of voluntary commitments made as part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal when the evidence suggests the industry is making good progress towards fulfilling the voluntary labelling initiative and significantly reducing the quantity of alcohol units sold through the UK market.” Sting in the tail: Comment by John Harrington, M&C Report associate editor Lets start with the positive. Today’s report is a further clear indication that the tide of opinion about who is responsible for problems associated with alcohol has well and truly changed. The 50-page document contains just four references to pubs, three of which are direct quotes from evidence provided by the British Beer & Pub Association. Granted, the report is a response to the Government’s strategy that itself focuses primarily on the off-trade and alcohol producers. But nevertheless, the Committee had ample chance to raise concerns about pubs and bars had they wished. The fact no direct comment is made about them at all tells its own story. The fact the Committee expresses serious concerns about minimum pricing should also be welcomed. The Government has not revealed the details of its pricing plan; a consultation, initially due this summer, has yet to surface. Some timely common sense advice from MPs to keep it evidence-based, and consider a sunset clause, could hopefully steer ministers down a sensible path and lead to policies that won’t rebound on the pub industry. But there’s a nasty sting in the tail concerning the Responsibility Deal. “The Committee does not believe that participation by the alcohol industry in the Responsibility Deal should be regarded by anyone as optional – we regard it as intrinsic to responsible corporate citizenship,” the report says. “We welcome the willingness of the industry to address the harms that alcohol can cause – for example by tackling issues with licensed premises through the formation of a business improvement district – but we believe that it should be clear that the Responsibility Deal is not a substitute for Government policy.” Put simply, the Committee has given the Government an extra incentive to pursue regulation around the Responsibility Deal commitments. The Coalition has so far stuck by the voluntary approach that fits with its stated policy of not placing fresh burdens on businesses. But opinions change - what better example than the Government abandoning a ban on below-cost sales in favour of minimum pricing? As the Department of Health continues with its controversial and turbulent reforms of the NHS, ministers may feel the need to gain some ‘quick wins’ to divert attention: what better than some hardline action on binge drinking? Administrations also change, and the intervention is a cause for concern up to and after the next General Election. Worryingly, Labour’s shadow health minister Diane Abbott this week reportedly said she favours increasing tax on high-sugar drinks, indicating a willingness to act on public health. Many in the industry will feel a foreboding sense of deja vu here. The previous Labour Government also took a series of voluntary agreements and best practice advice, on areas like drinks promotions and avoiding underage sales, and made them mandatory. Any similar action on the Responsibility Deal could have implications beyond the pub trade, with restaurant and cafe operators also signing up to pledges around such areas as salt reduction and calorie labelling. M&C Report revealed last week that a number of operators have highlighted difficulties complying with some of the commitments. New pledges have also come in for criticism; Marston’s chief executive Ralph Findlay wrote to the Department of Health last month about a commitment to persuade younger employees to exercise, saying the company was “not their parents; we are a business”. The industry must strike a careful balance here between raising legitimate concerns over details of the Responsibility Deal and showing its absolute commitment to its broader aims, or risk a fresh burden of legislation that it needs like a hole in the head. The tide of opinion may have turned, but the pub trade must not get caught in the undertow.