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Alcohol Products: Labelling

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing me this Adjournment debate, and I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister, whose reply I look forward to. Earlier this month, the details of the upcoming Government consultation on alcohol labelling—part of the obesity strategy—were leaked to the press. It is a long-overdue consultation and a welcome positive step that should lead to consumers being able to make more informed choices about their own health and wellbeing, but thanks to yet another hostile Government leak, the consultation was roundly attacked and misrepresented by tabloids and industry representatives. It sparked the usual outraged backlash against the nannying state and red tape, when that is simply not the case. I thought I would attempt to put the record straight.

To avoid confusion or misrepresentation, I whole-heartedly support our hospitality industry, and I understand the uphill battle it faces and the devastation that lockdowns and restrictions have caused. There is excitement and anticipation across the country about getting out, socialising, having a drink, seeing live music and enjoying life. We have all missed spending time with family and friends, whether that is relaxing and unwinding or going out and partying.

When we consider the role of alcohol in our society, we see that there is a balance to be struck. As with many things in life, there is the good and there is the bad, because we cannot escape the very real harm alcohol inflicts. The evidence, which I will come to, speaks for itself. Tackling alcohol harm is not about punishing drinkers or landlords, or taking the fun out of socialising. However, we have a responsibility—the Government have a responsibility—to hold the alcohol industry to account, and to ensure its fair and proper regulation.

Alcohol harm is rising, and it has been for many years, however we want to count it. Alcohol is now linked to 80 deaths a day in the UK, many of them of the young, while alcohol-specific deaths are at their highest rates since records began, and the treatment and funding for alcohol addiction are in absolute crisis, yet there appears to be no sense of urgency from Government. Alcohol is responsible for more years of working life lost than the 10 most frequent cancers combined. Before covid, alcohol took up 37% of ambulance time and a quarter of A&E time. For the police, it is even higher, with more than half of police time spent on alcohol-related incidents. All of this comes at a high financial cost, too. Alcohol harm is estimated to cost the UK taxpayer upwards of £27 billion each year.

I thank the hon. Member for bringing this issue to the House. It is a massive issue in his constituency, and very much one in mine as well. Does he not agree that alcohol-specific deaths are at an all-time high owing to a perfect storm? With coronavirus, isolation and lockdown, as well as the fact that very few people use standard pub measures at home, that there are supermarket deals on bottles of alcohol and people do not have to drive to work the next day, it is imperative that we take steps to remind people of the number of units per bottle, make it clear that the glass of wine they are accustomed to at home is not the same as their local pub one, and make people aware of the need to reduce their intake.

I am grateful to the hon. Member, and he is absolutely right.

We know that those in the most deprived communities are disproportionately affected. Despite drinking less on average, they are up to 60% more likely to die from alcohol than more affluent groups. In Liverpool—just one city—there are more than 14,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions every year, and 535 new cases of alcohol-related cancer as well. Alcohol harm and addiction are destroying lives, livelihoods, communities and families.

To return to the matter of today’s debate—alcohol labelling—I would like to ask those listening to remember the last time they looked at a bottle of orange juice. They may remember a number in red detailing the sugar content, a number for how many calories are in the drink, and a whole table with further information on nutritional content. Now picture a bottle of alcohol—wine perhaps. Do they remember seeing any such information about the ingredients, calories or nutritional values? Was there any information about the impact of alcohol on health, or any guidelines for consumption? If I can make a guess, the answer is most likely to be no, or maybe “on some bottles”. That is because none of this information is legally required on alcohol labels. Alcohol products are a conspicuous outlier among consumables. They are exempt from other food and drink labelling requirements, and the only information that is legally required is the volume of the liquid, its strength in ABV—alcohol by volume—and whether any of the 14 most common allergens are present.

In July 2020, the Government unveiled the new obesity strategy. On the subject of labelling, the Health Secretary said

“it’s only fair that you are given the right information about the food you’re eating to help people to make good decisions.”

He is absolutely right, and what he says is as true for alcoholic drinks as it is for anything else. It is surely bizarre that if we buy a bottle of juice, we get a range of calorie, ingredient and nutritional information, yet if we buy a juice and vodka ready-to-drink product, we will usually not get any of the same information. Similarly, alcohol-free beer and wine must display calorie and nutritional information, yet alcoholic beer and wine does not have to.

Covid-19 has reminded us all of the need to take seriously the impact of diet and lifestyle on our physical and mental health. As we know that alcohol damages health and causes harm, it is inexplicable that alcohol products face less regulation than fruit juices and fizzy drinks, so the Government’s consultation is timely and important.

I want to press the Minister to go further with the consultation than calories, nutritional information and ingredients; it must consider health information as well. The majority of the public agree and want to know what is in their drinks. Opinion polling conducted for the Alcohol Health Alliance shows that 74% of people want ingredients on alcohol labels, 62% want nutritional information, including calorie content, and 70% want health warnings.

There is a strong case for displaying calorie information on alcohol labels. For those who drink, alcohol accounts for nearly 10% of their daily calorie intake. Around 3.4 million adults consume an additional day’s worth of calories each week, yet 80% of the public are unaware of the calorie content of the most common alcoholic drinks.

Alcohol harm is also poorly understood by drinkers. Only one in five people know the drinking guidelines, and only one in 10 can identify cancer as a health consequence of alcohol. We have warnings on cigarettes that tobacco can cause cancer, so why is similar information missing from alcohol?

I would like to quote one person with lived experience, who described the lack of health information to me like this:

“I knew little of how many recommended units per week, I knew nothing about the nutritional value, I could tell you how many calories were in a Mars Bar but not the glass of Merlot I was drinking. I knew nothing about the long-term health implications. If I buy a pack of cigarettes I am told they are highly addictive and I am told with every pack what health implication there could be. They are now behind a shutter in the shop – but alcohol? Nothing. I near lost my life to alcohol and the lack of information and regulation makes no sense to me”.

Alcohol labels are an effective tool to change that situation. A study in Canada showed that consumers exposed to health warnings on labels were three times more likely to be aware of the drinking guidelines and were also more likely to know about the link between alcohol and cancer.

A number of alcohol products voluntarily incorporate unit alcohol content per container, a pregnancy logo or message and active signposting to I am grateful to the producers who contacted me ahead of this debate to share updated labels that now include calorie and nutritional information. One of the UK’s biggest pub chains has already taken that step and is providing calorie labelling for all alcoholic drinks on their menus. I am grateful to the Minister for confirming, in answer to my written question, that alcohol sold in licensed venues will also be part of the consultation.

If someone pops into their local supermarket and takes a wander round the booze aisle, it is abundantly clear that there are huge inconsistencies in alcohol packaging. That hit-and-miss approach is just not good enough. It is time to put it right and standardise the approach, as we have done with food labelling. Even on the products that did carry chief medical officer guidelines and nutritional information, there are varying degrees of clarity and visibility.

In their report “Drinking in the dark: How alcohol labelling fails consumers”, Alcohol Change UK and the Alcohol Health Alliance recommend that:

“The UK Government and devolved administrations must give a new or existing independent agency appropriate powers to…enforce what appears on alcohol labels, working in the interests of public health and consumer rights and free from influence and interference from corporate interests.”

I support that recommendation and hope that the Minister will consider it in the consultation, when it gets under way.

Sir Ian Gilmore, a leading figure in Liverpool’s fight against alcohol harm and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said:

“Alcohol labelling in this country is…not fit for purpose if we wish to build a healthier society. The public must be granted the power to make informed decisions about their health by having access to prominent health warnings and information on ingredients, nutrition and alcohol content at the point of purchase. The industry’s reluctance to include this information on their products suggests profits are being put ahead of people’s health.”

Ahead of this debate, I received a letter and information from the Portman Group, the alcohol industry-funded social responsibility body and regulator for alcohol labelling, packaging and promotion in the UK, and I am grateful for that. The Portman Group supports the consultation and its intention to provide consumers with more information on calories, the chief medical officer’s lower-risk guidance and drink-driving. It said that

“we believe this can be done most effectively on a voluntary basis”.

It is encouraging to hear some industry support for the consultation and I look forward to further discussions with it, but with alcohol-specific deaths at their highest on record, it is surely time for a proper review of how the industry is regulated and held to account.

The regulation of alcohol marketing in the UK is fragmented and largely self-regulating. Under the current set-up, the Advertising Standards Authority, funded by the advertising industry, Ofcom and the Portman Group, funded by the alcohol industry, all play a role in regulating marketing, from TV advertising to sponsorship deals to packaging. That is surely ripe for review, to consider how a new model and a new alcohol industry regulator could be made more accountable to the public and be fully independent of the alcohol industry.

I hope that the Minister will use her consultation as an opportunity to mandate wider health information on labels, too. This should, as a minimum, include the CMO’s guidelines, pregnancy warnings, drink-drive warnings and cancer warnings, so that we can make informed personal health choices and collectively seek to reduce alcohol harm.

I accept that alcohol labelling is only one small part of seeking to reduce alcohol harm across society. Any progress on improving labelling should be part of a broader strategy: a national, Government alcohol strategy. The last alcohol strategy was formulated in 2012, and, since then, harms have continued to rise. Over the last decade, we have learnt a lot more about the wider health impacts of alcohol, such as the link between alcohol and cancer. The World Health Organisation is clear that policies on the affordability, availability and promotion of alcohol are the most effective—policies that have also proved effective in reducing smoking.

What can really be said of attempts to reduce the increasing and worsening harms caused by alcohol misuse? Why is it that evidence-based research and policies are being ignored in this way? The Government’s addiction strategy is under way—it was promised in 2020, but we are waiting for it—and we also await the second part of the Dame Carol Black review of drugs. These are very welcome, but now is surely the time for a full-scale review of reducing alcohol harm across society. A focused alcohol strategy would allow a much broader and fuller understanding of the extent of alcohol harm and the measures needed to reduce it.

As it stands today, the UK has the highest number of alcohol-specific deaths on record. Drug and alcohol addiction services have been pushed outside the NHS into cash-strapped local authorities, decimated by funding cuts and fragmented. There are fewer addiction psychiatrists in training than ever. Alcohol is now 74% cheaper than it was in 1987, and in England there are over 300,000 children currently living with at least one adult who drinks at a high-risk level.

This current trajectory cannot continue and the urgent need for a national alcohol strategy cannot be overstated. In their approach to obesity, the Government have shown a willingness to take bold action to protect the public’s health. The same boldness is now required to tackle alcohol harm. The consultation on the labelling of alcohol products is the first step towards improving transparency and accountability across the alcohol industry, and ensuring an evidence-based approach to reducing alcohol harms. I implore the Minister to get it under way, and I look forward to her response.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for securing the debate and for the measured way in which he has approached this issue. He set out how we want to move forward, how alcohol has a broader cost—a cost to lives, to people’s health and to society—and how, fundamentally, this is about education; it is about helping people to make informed choices and make the right choice. For that, I thank him.

While the debate focuses on the labelling of alcohol products, I want to start by making a few points on alcohol consumption and misuse, which it is extremely important to address. While the majority of people drink and do so responsibly—I am sure the whole nation will be cheering at the fact that the hon. Gentleman does not want to take the fun out of us all enjoying a responsible drink and getting together with friends and family—we know that there are people who drink at harmful levels, with that alcohol misuse leading to significant harms in not only their lives but the lives of those around them. It has large impacts on society that have a cost to health, to productivity and to quality of life.

Excessive consumption is the biggest risk factor to which early mortality, ill health and disability are attributable among 15 to 49-year-olds in the UK—those are young people’s lives—and is considered to be the third largest lifestyle risk for preventable disease after smoking and obesity. Alcohol harms are not experienced equally across all groups. Those with a lower socioeconomic status show the greatest susceptibility to alcohol harms and have a much higher likelihood of death or suffering a disease relating to their alcohol use, be it cancer, liver disease or a plethora of other things.

In recent years, we have seen an overall decrease in the number of people drinking. However, a review undertaken by Public Health England shows that during the pandemic, we have seen an increase in those drinking at dependent and higher-risk levels. While numbers may have gone down at the more moderate end, we have seen an increase of more than 16% in alcohol-related deaths for the first three quarters of 2020 compared with 2019. During that period we were largely limited to off-sales, because places where we might normally enjoy a social drink were closed.

We know that most people who drink alcohol do so responsibly and enjoy doing it on social occasions, but the covid pandemic has shone a spotlight on the impact of general poor health on our ability to fight off the virus. That is why we need to be aware of the risks of excessive drinking and how much heavier the impact is on those who have risks and challenges in that part of their life. It has underlined the need to take action, which was the thread running through the hon. Gentleman’s speech. We are improving the public health response and addressing a number of challenges, including obesity, smoking and drug misuse, and we will continue to monitor the impact of alcohol during the pandemic and as we come out of it, considering further action in the forthcoming addiction strategy.

Drug and alcohol treatment providers have continued to support and treat people through the pandemic, but there have been challenges. There have been some brighter sparks. I have spoken to people who have delivered group sessions, and it has been easier at times to connect and communicate, but for others, the journey during the pandemic has been a lot more disconnected. At this point in the debate, I would like to encourage, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would, anybody who is worried about their consumption of alcohol to reach out and seek help at the earliest possible opportunity.

Alcohol labelling, which is what we are largely discussing this evening, is an important part of the overall work on reducing alcohol-related harms. The Government believe that people have the right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and the health risks that may be associated with it, to enable them to make informed choices about their drinking and what they consume. As people return to socialising and drinking this summer, it is increasingly important that they are educated not just about alcohol and its harms, but about how they can enjoy alcohol responsibly and have fun with other people in a manner that saves on some of the other costs of drinking too much.

The UK chief medical officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines were published back in 2016. The intention is to help people understand the risks that alcohol might pose to an individual’s health and to make decisions about consumption in the light of those risks. The guidelines are based on evidence of risk and benefit, including the most up-to-date international and UK-specific data. The guidelines give a clear recommendation to limit alcohol intake to 14 units a week, to limit daily intake to reduce immediate risk, and not to drink if pregnant or planning to become pregnant due to the effect on the unborn child.

Over the past years, we have worked with the alcohol industry to ensure that alcohol labels reflect the UK CMO low-risk drinking guidelines, and the industry has committed to comply with that requirement. We are monitoring, carefully and closely, the progress that is being achieved. The British Retail Consortium—I would like to congratulate it on this—led the way in this area, with most own brands, such as Marks & Spencer and Aldi, now displaying the CMO guidelines. That shows that it can be done and that some are doing it. We were also pleased that in 2019 the Portman Group, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and its members committed to include the guidelines on their products. We fully appreciate that the pandemic has delayed those plans and that the hospitality industry has been severely impacted, but I would like to think that we can now refocus. I am really looking forward to seeing rapid progress and top premium brands increasingly displaying the guidance on their labels. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Portman Group acts as the socially responsible element of the industry, and what can be more socially responsible than helping to educate people so they can make an informed decision?

Post covid, we know that more must be done to look after our health. However, making healthier decisions without all the information is actually quite a challenge. For people to make informed decisions about the drinks they are purchasing, they need to be able to understand what is in that product and what it means for their health. We know that excessive alcohol consumption can be a contributing factor to obesity. I think the hon. Gentleman totted up the daily figures I am going to give and rounded them up to a week’s worth of figures, which equated to an extra day’s calories. Adults, on average, consume 200 to 300 extra calories per day. Of those who drink, 7% to 8% of that calorie intake comes from alcohol, because it is highly calorific. However, the evidence shows that the public, as he articulated, are largely unaware of those invisible calories. Many adults cannot accurately estimate the calorie content of an alcoholic product.

In 2019, less than half of alcohol brands provided calorie information on labels, so as part of the Government’s latest obesity strategy we are committed to consult on the introduction of mandatory calorie labelling on pre-packaged alcohol and alcohol sold in the on-trade sector. We hope that the provision of calorie labelling on alcohol will encourage reformulation, because there are market opportunities for lower-calorie versions that will further help adults to reduce their calorie intake from alcohol. This consultation will be launched very shortly.

The Portman Group, as I said, is the social responsibility body and regulator for alcohol labelling, packaging and promotion. It operates its codes of practice to ensure that alcohol is marketed in a socially responsible way only to those of 18 and over, and in a way that does not appeal to those who are particularly vulnerable to its appeal. The codes are supported throughout the industry, with over 150 code signatories, including producers, importers, wholesalers, retailers and their trade associations. I am absolutely committed, as are colleagues across Government, to working with the industry to address concerns over irresponsible labelling, packaging and promotion allied to labelling, and the concerns that the industry has, because I am sure that it is much easier if everybody is doing a similar thing, and then people can easily and swiftly find the information that they need, as the hon. Gentleman laid out.

As we know of the increasing harms from alcohol across society, which are slightly different from what will be covered in the addiction strategy, and there has been an increased focus on the drug strategy, does the Minister see the argument now for a proper review and strategy to deal with increasing alcohol harms across society?

Now is a great time to focus on making sure that we enable people to make the healthier choice as the default choice, and that we work to ensure that people have the right information for them. All I am willing to say at this stage is that nothing is off the table. There are a lot of strategies. Rather than making any blanket statement, the important job now is to refocus and to deliver on some of the commitments that we would like to see, and to make sure that the consultation is rolled out so that we can have that dialogue and make sure that we are doing the right thing for individuals but also across the industry.

I thank the Minister for outlining very clearly a strategy to address the issues that the hon. Gentleman is referring to. Minister, I know that it is not technically your responsibility, but I think perhaps—

Apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. One massive issue has been the promotion of drink at cheap prices so that people can get drunk cheaper. Would the Minister be sympathetic to discussing this issue with the industry—the Portman Group has been referred to—to try to address it?

I think the hon. Gentleman refers to minimum unit pricing. As I say, we are refocusing on making sure that we are having a broad range of discussions. As he pointed out at the beginning of his intervention, this is not something that sits within my responsibility. However, I have heard, and I am sure others have heard, his plea for that work, which does go on in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Alcohol labelling is one part of wide-ranging cross-Government work to address alcohol-related health harms and their impact on life chances. The Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable at risk from alcohol misuse. We have an existing agenda on tackling alcohol-related harms, including an ambitious programme to establish specialist alcohol care teams in the worst-affected 25% of hospitals, because I do recognise some of the challenges within the workforce that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned. We continue to support the children of alcohol-dependent parents—a situation that wreaks such havoc.

As part of the prevention Green Paper, we are committed to increasing the general drinking population’s direction of travel towards lower-strength alternatives when they have moderate drinking habits. We are working with the industry and other stakeholders to create more consumer choice and availability in the low-alcohol and no-alcohol sector. They are often very palatable alternatives, particularly for those who are driving or who may have a reason to want a clear head the following morning. The more choice that we can give people in that area, the better.

The Government have committed to publishing a new, UK-wide cross-Government addiction strategy that considers the full range of issues, including drugs, alcohol and problem gambling. While each of those comes with its own set of issues—as the hon. Gentleman said, the second part of Dame Carol Black’s review is due shortly—there is also much common ground and many benefits to tackling addiction in a complete, comprehensive and joined-up way. The scope of the addiction strategy is still being developed, so I consider this debate and his calls most timely as we consider what more can be done to protect people from those alcohol-related harms.

I emphasise the Government’s commitment to ensuring that alcohol labels provide the information that people need to make informed choices about the products that they are purchasing. I stress, probably for my husband and children mostly, that we are not saying, “You can’t enjoy a drink.” What we are saying very clearly is that we would like to encourage the nation’s drinking to be responsible, and to help people not to be one of those statistics that wreck lives.

We believe that people have the right to accurate information to help them to make decisions about the products that they purchase, and we are committed to ensuring that the labelling on alcohol provides that. Progress has been made in relation to the UK CMO’s low-risk drinking guidelines and other information on alcohol products, but we are not complacent. We will continue to actively monitor the position and keep it under review, and ensure that we level up so that people, no matter what drink they choose, can get accurate information from the product.

We await the consultation to ensure that we take everyone with us, because it is important that we do things in a measured but directed way in order to bring the benefits to the most people. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton for introducing this Adjournment debate and for everything that we have discussed. Let us hope that we can get there.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.