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Health: Alcohol

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to take account of the health impacts of the availability of high alcohol content wines.

My Lords, high-alcohol wines are increasingly available as we import more wines from the new world which are stronger than those from France, Italy and Spain. It is important that people understand how strong their drink is, how much they drink, and the health risks.

Given that the average alcoholic strength of a bottle of wine has risen in recent decades from 11 to 13 per cent, with a commensurate rise in hospital admissions for those with alcohol-related problems, will my noble friend consider lowering the excise duty on lower-strength wines to encourage both sensible drinking and wider, broadened consumer choice?

My noble friend raises two different points, one of which is to do with consumer choice. It is indeed the case that consumers should be able to choose lower or higher-strength wines. However, it is not for the Government to decide what products retailers should make available. What we think is important is that people understand how strong the drinks are, what advice is relevant to them and the risks of regularly drinking above the lower-risk guidelines. My noble friend’s second point related to taxation. I can say with some accuracy that that is above my pay grade and is a matter for the Chancellor.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an adviser to a wine-producing company. Is the Minister aware that only from this month has the industry been permitted by EU regulations to reduce the alcoholic strength of wine for sale in Europe, but only by up to 2 per cent? Will the Government support the industry’s campaign to relax the rules further so that more lower-strength wines can be marketed legally in the UK?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point. The 2008 wine reform allowed EU producers access to wine-making rules used by third countries and new technologies used internationally, but, as she said, only to reduce alcohol in their wine by up to 2 per cent. We see this as an important development. I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that we will continue to work within the EU to increase the scope for dealcoholisation of wines. Unfortunately, not all in the European Union favour these developments, because new technologies are seen as betraying traditions of European wine-making. So we have to recognise that old and new skills have to live side by side and that people must get every opportunity to improve their competitiveness in this market.

My Lords, may I assure the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that I have just had the pleasure of sharing a bottle of red wine with 13 per cent alcohol in the Lords dining room, with really, I think, no ill effect to my health? Would it perhaps be sensible to say that the real answer is occasionally to drink one bottle with 13 or 14 per cent alcohol rather than two with 10 or 11 per cent?

I thank the noble Lord for that comment. To add to his information, the House of Lords claret is 13.5 per cent, the sauvignon is 12 per cent and the chardonnay is 12.5 per cent.

My Lords, is my noble friend working with other departments to ensure that people such as parents and teachers are aware of the difference in alcohol content in various drinks, so that children are protected?

My noble friend points to a very important matter. The way in which we tackle alcohol abuse, particularly the problems that we know face young people and their drinking habits, is through the education of those young people and their parents. We are absolutely committed to that. We have a youth alcohol action plan, providing advice for children and parents, along with a whole series of measures that we take jointly with the Home Office on these matters.

My Lords, not only does high alcohol intake lead to an increase in hospital admissions—it leads to a decrease in productivity, as my husband found yesterday with a student who was a little under the weather. When my husband asked what the matter was, he said that he was suffering from “wine flu”.

My Lords, I declare an interest in the subject, one that I hope will continue for a very long time. What is the department doing to encourage pubs to serve wine in 125 millilitre glasses—small glasses—so that people who want to enjoy a glass of wine and stay within the limits can do so safely?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point. Wine glass sizes are larger than they used to be, and the majority of pubs, bars and clubs now offer 175 millilitre or even 250 millilitre glasses by default. That makes it difficult to moderate intake, and it may influence less healthy drinking norms. The important matter is that customers should be able to go to pubs and clubs and should be able to ask for wine in the 125 millilitre measures. We are very concerned about that and are having a consultation with the Home Office about a mandatory code for retailers to do precisely that.

A few years ago, in your Lordships' House, my noble friend the Minister stated that by the end of 2008 it would be compulsory, on a voluntary basis, for—

I shall start again. The Minister said that the alcohol industry would have labelling on all bottles, on a voluntary basis, on the danger of drinking while pregnant. The year 2008 has come and gone, and we now hear that wine is stronger. Will this be made mandatory?

My noble friend knows that we are very concerned about the health information on labels on alcoholic drinks. We know that it has been used only to a limited extent. We have been working with the industry to improve the uptake of the voluntary agreement and hope that the monitoring exercise conducted earlier this year will show an improved rate of compliance. We expect to be able to publish the results of this exercise shortly. I shall bring my noble friend’s concern to the attention of my honourable friend Gillian Merron; I recognise his concern and the fact that we debated this issue in 2008. Quite rightly, he wants action to be taken.

My Lords, has the Minister recently reread the proceedings in your Lordships' House on the Licensing Bill in 2003, when so many of the warnings given from these Benches have come to pass? What pressure is her department putting on the rest of the Government to review the provisions of that Act?

Flexible licensing hours will remain. We want local authorities to use the powers that we have given them to take action at local level.