Inside Track by Mark Stretton
They say that legislation is the opiate of politicians, and by the looks of things this current Labour government is well and truly hooked. The mantra seems to be: “if in doubt, or if it moves, legislate”. It has of course become clear in the last few days that alcohol is the latest subject firmly in the government’s sights. After the joy of Gordon Brown telling us all to be more frugal with our food – shortly before he tucked into a 17-course banquet at the G8 – the prime minister now wants to tell the nation how to drink, as it seems certain that our unfortunate premier is to oversee the introduction of new laws governing the way Britain buys and consumes alcohol. This follows the release of numerous reports into Britain’s drink problem, covering among other things the connection between promotions and consumption, and the impact excessive drinking has on health, relationships and society. The national media certainly played its part in wringing out every last column inch. The tabloids appeared to hold a competition last week to see who could come up with the biggest headline number in terms of the cost of alcohol abuse to the UK. The largest was £25bn - this breaks down: NHS costs of 2.5bn, crime costs of “up to” £15bn and loss of productivity to the economy of “up to” £7.3bn. These are big numbers and it seems certain someone must pay. And that someone is the “polluter”: the drinks industry and UK retailers of alcohol – pubs and supermarkets. It is an especially dangerous time for the pub and bar industry as the government has essentially run out of money, and few would be surprised if it attempted to monetise the current hysteria (what odds an NHS-alcohol tax?). The response of the industry's leading trade body to this latest alcohol crisis has unfortunately been predictably lamentable. The industry must quickly realise that criticising the government, criticising the validity of the multiple (and clearly flawed) reports and pointing towards the many good and responsible operators in the industry, is just not going to cut it this time. And before everyone shakes their head and laments the poor research, the current bout of discounting on the high street bar circuit has not eased the situation. And it certainly does not bode well to have Luminar, the UK’s biggest nightclub operator – and a listed company – currently attempting to defend its decision to charge 80p a drink at several of its venues. Something has to give. The health lobby is powerful and its arguments on alcohol are strong. Who is the government going to listen to: pre-eminent medical professionals or the drinks lobby and pub trade? The health lobby will always win – the same is starting to happen in the food industry. There is a danger that this situation is smoking all over again, and that the pub industry is about to sleep-walk into yet more unwelcome and prohibitive red tape. When smoking legislation appeared on the horizon, the industry couldn’t agree its position – and then the 80%-20% progressive no-smoking policy proffered by the “big five” was too little, too late – and summarily ignored. Conversely the hotel industry recognised a ban was coming, fought for a concession that bedrooms should be treated as private places, and won. The question is what are drinks manufacturers and pub and bar operators going to give? If there is a desire for as little interference as possible then realistic concessions must be agreed, and then presented to the government. The industry must recognise the need to deliver something to an under-pressure prime minister who needs to be seen to be dealing with this problem. Perhaps the industry should campaign for minimum retail pricing laws on alcohol? It may even be time to gather round the table with the health lobby and the supermarkets. If this situation heralds the customary head-burying-in-sand routine, we all need to ready ourselves for the worst. Legislation is coming, possibly accompanied by more taxes. It’s time to get on the front foot. The tipping point Talking of taking a proactive stance, the tipping issue has gathered real momentum and it’s time for everyone to respond. It is a complex topic and not as straight forward as the Independent newspaper’s campaign would have people believe. But the public has an overwhelming sense that something is not quite right and restaurants must communicate clearly their policies – customers want to know where their tip is going. Wagamama’s decision to put something on the menu sounds sensible and others should follow suit.