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House of Lords Hansard
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Alcohol Strategy: Role of Drinks Industry
10 July 2012
Volume 738

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what they consider to be the role of the drinks industry in helping to prevent alcohol misuse and anti-social behaviour, and in promoting responsible drinking, in line with the Government’s alcohol strategy.

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My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests. I am a former chief executive of the Portman Group and the Drinkaware Trust, and a former member of the Alcohol Education and Research Council and the Advertising Standards Authority. Currently I am a paid consultant to two drinks producers, Brown-Forman and Heineken, but I emphasise that neither company has asked or suggested that I table this debate, nor have they had any discussions with me about it.

Despite these connections, I would be the first to say that when it comes to irresponsible behaviour the industry has certainly not been blameless. I joined the Portman Group in 1996 at the time alcopops burst onto the market and I saw some dreadful examples of products and marketing campaigns that were inexcusable and that would now breach every rule in the book of the codes of practice that were subsequently developed and which apply today. However, I believe the industry has come a long way and is now genuine in its intentions to promote responsible drinking and prevent misuse. I also believe the industry is effective in its actions and, indeed, has been a helpful model to other sectors.

Promoting responsible drinking and being a successful, profit-making business are not conflicting, mutually exclusive objectives. I am pleased that the latest alcohol strategy and the responsibility deal acknowledge the industry as a key partner and press exactly the right buttons to stimulate innovation and link the industry ever more closely into the community partnerships which are, frankly, the only way in which we will ever make a lasting impact on the drinking culture in this country.

The situation is not altogether negative. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the vast majority of people—78%—are drinking within government guidelines. Per capita consumption fell from 9.5 to 8.3 litres between 2004 and 2011, putting the UK a fraction above the European average and lower than France, Spain and Austria. According to the ONS, young people’s binge-drinking is at its lowest ever recorded level, and fewer children aged 11 to 15 are trying alcohol than ever before. Drinking at harmful levels is falling and drink/drive fatalities have fallen by 85% since 1979.

Yet there is still a significant minority who do drink to excess and cost the UK economy a staggering £21 billion every year. Alcohol-related hospital admissions are up and alcohol-related deaths have doubled since the early 1990s. Alcohol-related violent crime has fallen significantly but still accounts for nearly 1 million incidents every year. Individuals, families, communities and businesses are being damaged.

To tackle these problems, the Government are right to treat the industry as a key stakeholder who can have a significant positive impact. This is partly about demanding strict standards of commercial behaviour which prohibit the industry from doing things such as targeting its marketing to under 18s and linking alcohol with sexual success, and a host of other strict and detailed rules which are policed by the Portman Group, the ASA and Ofcom.

However, it is also about what the industry can do proactively. For example, 61 companies fund the Drinkaware Trust, now a charity under independent governance with trustees from many sectors, including health professionals. Almost all ads for alcoholic drinks now carry the Drinkaware website address and that attracts 300,000 people a month. In-kind media support from industry totals £26.5 million, significantly exceeding the Government’s target of £15 million. This also compares positively with the Government’s spend on alcohol campaigns of only £4.65 million for the past two years. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether this is likely to go up.

However, it is the Responsibility Deal that demonstrates the most imaginative and transformative potential of corporate responsibility. Nowhere else in Europe has achieved anything like it—and all without red tape.

It has four key commitments. First, to take 1 billion units of alcohol out of the market by 2015 by reformulating existing brands to contain less alcohol and by innovating to bring new, lower-strength brands on to the market, helping more people to drink within the guidelines by providing a wider choice of lower alcohol products. This is significant because it shapes the drive to reduce consumption in a consumer friendly way: the issue becomes one of drinks, not of alcohol.

Secondly, the industry will help consumers understand units better and it has pledged that by December 2013 over 80% of the products on the shelves will carry clear unit content, the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines and a warning about drinking while pregnant. It is well on track to fulfil this commitment, with over 60% of labels and containers already complying with 18 months still to go. Mandatory labelling would almost certainly need EU legislation and take years to achieve, so the UK industry is leading the way by doing this voluntarily.

The third pledge is to provide more support for communities to develop local schemes such as Best Bar None, Purple Flag, community alcohol partnerships and business improvement districts. This is vital because alcohol harms in the UK vary hugely across different regions. For example, data from the North-West Regional Health Authority show rates of alcohol specific mortality and liver disease in Blackpool at nearly three times the national average; hospital admissions in Liverpool, nearly 2.5 times the national average; and binge drinking in north Tyneside, 1.5 times the national average.

One of the reasons these community schemes work is because they offer a win-win outcome. For example, in Durham there has been a 75% increase in trade in pubs which run the Best Bar None scheme because it makes the pub a safer and more attractive place to go. At the same time, figures suggest an 87% decrease in violent crime.

Finally, under the responsibility deal, producers have committed continued support to Drinkaware, not only by paying their dues and sitting back but by using their brand marketing to promote the charity’s campaigns and government guidelines. During the last FA Cup competition, for example, more than 50 million football fans saw Drinkaware branding through a beer sponsorship which featured Drinkaware on the stadium perimeter. Every sixth ad shown at the matches carried the Drinkaware message. We know that it had a positive effect because during the two semi-final matches in April there was a 30% increase in direct traffic to the Drinkaware home page.

Being a partner in the alcohol strategy of course means, by definition, that there are other groups involved too. The industry should not be the scapegoats for all the blame when something goes wrong. Pubs often get it in the neck for offering so-called 24 hour drinking when in fact only a minute percentage of the UK’s licensed premises have a 24-hour licence, and most of those are in airports or hotels. The fact is that we have seen a reduction in consumption since we have had a relaxation in the licensing regime.

Producers often get it in the neck, too, for their advertising but, as I said earlier, there are stringent restrictions on the content, placement and timing of alcohol ads and the new strategy has given a clear mandate to the ASA and the Portman Group to review the rules further.

Supermarkets often get it in the neck for selling alcohol too cheaply—I find some of their discounting practices very worrying—but even price is not a straightforward issue. There is certainly a proven link between price and consumption but I am not so sure that there is a proven link between price and harm. After all, alcohol is even cheaper in France and yet alcohol harms there are falling. Our real target should be the drinking culture and harmful patterns of drinking, whatever the price of the stuff.

Other partners include parents, and one might ask why, according to Drinkaware, most parents do not plan to talk to their children about alcohol until well past the age when they are likely to have had their first drink.

Law enforcement, too, has a role. One might ask why you can count on one hand the number of prosecutions of licensees for selling drink to customers who are already drunk, when this has been against the law for years. Voluntary initiatives on the part of the industry should be a complement to, and not a substitute for, proper law enforcement. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that point.

The drinks industry will always and rightly come under close scrutiny and deserve even tighter regulation if it falls short of the standards which it has set for itself and which others expect of it. It must make sense to harness business skills, marketing expertise and product innovation to the effort to reduce alcohol harm, where, self-evidently, the traditional health education approach alone has failed.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for promoting the debate this evening. I commence, too, by declaring an interest: as trustee of Action on Addiction and several other charities which are in the business of trying to help people who have suffered the consequences of alcohol abuse.

I shall not go through the usual litany of problems which arise from the continuing massive overconsumption of alcohol in this country and its widespread abuse. It is true that the level of drinking has declined marginally in recent times, but, compared to 15 or 20 years ago, it is still extraordinarily high and the price of alcohol in this country is still quite low. As the noble Baroness concedes, 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions were recorded in 2010-11 alone. The level of binge-drinking among young people, particularly among 15 and 16 year-olds, is still very high compared with what we find in other European countries. My first question to the Minister is: when will the Government not only review advertising targeted particularly at the young but ask the drinks industry also to stop doing it, especially through increasing use of social media? Social media are heavily populated by the young these days and that is an area where the drinks industry feels that it can make the biggest impact. If we are truly to bring about a change in culture, it should come from the young, from targeting them positively and from not encouraging them to drink.

I congratulate the Government on the steps that they have taken to try to tackle the problem. The noble Baroness did not mention the Government’s announcement to tackle the issue of minimum pricing. I congratulate the Government on the bold steps that they have taken there. I know that they are consulting at the moment, but I hope that they will stick to their guns and not be persuaded by those who will come with counter-arguments to shift their policy.

I thank the Government for the changes which they have made to local licensing laws, on which we had some extensive debates last year. One of the factors which many of us believe lead to excessive drinking is our easy access to alcohol these days compared with 20 or 30 years ago. While the Government are working through the changes in licensing arrangements, I hope that they will continue to keep them under close review. I hope, too, that they will review the possibility of a change being made to the criteria used in granting licences locally to take into account the effects on public health of excessive drinking in particular areas and locations. They should use localism to benefit people who are suffering from some of the adverse consequences of abusive drinking in their areas.

It would be churlish on my part if I did not concede that some substantial changes have been made by the drinks industry in recent years. Drinkaware is making good headway in certain areas, but its communication with the wider public is in many respects fairly limited. The number of people who visit its website is fairly small by comparison with the millions of people communicated with, for example, by wide-scale Carlsberg adverts shown during preparations for the Olympics.

It is important that we do not disregard the position which the BMA has taken on Drinkaware and the joint initiative taken by the Government in the form of the Responsibility Deal. It felt inclined in the light of the way that conversations were going to withdraw from that. I hope that the Minister will say whether the Government are taking any steps to try to bring the medical profession back into partnership. The report produced 12 months ago by this House’s Science and Technology Select Committee on behaviour change raised very serious questions about the extent to which the Responsibility Deal could work.

I recognise that I am running out of time. I wanted to press the Minister on why there has been no movement on changing drink labelling to give coverage of the calorie levels and contents of alcoholic drinks. I have done a blog today, so if the Minister is kind enough, he can go away afterwards and read it, because the Government need to take action. Regardless of what is happening in Europe, we could move on that front. That would be a way of communicating on a mass scale with many drinkers.

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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, both on securing this short debate and on her outstanding work in this area. I believe that this is the first debate that we have had on this subject since the Government published their alcohol strategy in March.

I declare a very historic interest as a former employee of Grand Metropolitan plc, as it then was, in the 1980s, but, as a result, I am a firm believer in government and local government working with the industry—both the on and off-trade and the manufacturers—in implementing an alcohol strategy.

It partly depends on having clear common understanding of the facts, but these are sometimes not straightforward—the noble Baroness set out the facts very clearly. It seems that the prevalence of binge-drinking has fallen over time, but there are many conflicting statistics and it is not always easy to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, the key factor for me is that, as Drinkaware says, binge-drinking remains a social norm. We are fighting a huge cultural battle. Many would say that binge-drinking—the inability to take in alcohol in a civilised way—has sadly been an English cultural characteristic for hundreds of years. Depressingly, it may be spreading more widely abroad.

This is a culture we have to change. Some say that social responsibility initiatives and education are not enough. They are probably right on this, but they often go further and say that it is wrong that industry should be involved in public health initiatives. This is too purist a line. I believe strongly in the value of the Responsibility Deal launched in March 2011, as agreed between the Department of Health and the industry, in a number of areas which, again, the noble Baroness set out. They include: alcohol labelling; awareness of alcohol units in the on and off-trade; tackling underage alcohol sales; support for Drinkaware; advertising and marketing of alcohol; and community action to tackle alcohol harm.

Under this umbrella and otherwise, there are a great many community schemes where the industry is working with local government to minimise alcohol abuse and the problems flowing from it. They include Best Bar None, Purple Flag; community alcohol partnerships, of which there are now some 36; Pubwatch; and Challenge 25, designed to tackle underage drinking —to name but a few.

There is clearly no single magic bullet, as all policy makers recognise, but we need to keep trying different approaches. I broadly support the Government's alcohol strategy, published in March this year. The Minister may be aware that I was sceptical about Government’s so-called rebalancing approach to the licensing regime in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, in particular as regards the evidential test being changed both for the new EMROs and for licence conditions and the removal of the vicinity test, not to mention the blanket nature of the late-night levy. Time will tell, but there are many other areas of government strategy to support.

In particular, there is the question of minimum alcohol pricing. A Home Office paper was published in March 2011 which, albeit tentatively, suggests that there is enough evidence to say that the minimum pricing of units of alcohol would have an impact on behaviour. Of course, that is not popular with the industry, but, along with many who run pubs and clubs, I believe that one of the key components of binge drinking is preloading—drinking cheap alcohol purchased from supermarkets and off-licences before going out. The Government paper says that there is evidence of a link between alcohol pricing and violence and that pricing could have an impact on young people and binge-drinking.

What progress is being made on the consultation? What concrete proposals are being put forward? Are the pricing proposals that the cost price should be no less than the cost price of a unit, or a figure, such as 40p or 50p? Those are important issues and I hope that firm proposals are being prepared.

I am not yet convinced—I think that the Government have the same approach—that a more draconian approach to advertising is in order. We have the guidelines laid down by the ASA and the marketing code of practice of the Portman Group, designed principally to prevent alcohol advertising being directed at children. As a result of the latter, more than 80 irresponsible products have been banned in co-operation with retailers. We should have clear evidence of abuse before plunging into further regulation.

All of us would acknowledge that this is an important industry. Let us not demonise it but work with it.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer and the chairman of two joint ventures with Molson Coors: the Cobra Beer partnership here in the UK and Molson Coors Cobra in India.

Sadly, I have seen the terrible effects of “country liquor”, which is still widely consumed in India. Country liquor is usually about 50% alcohol by volume, if not more. It causes huge health and social problems, destroying families and communities.

Prohibition has never worked anywhere in the world. If people are going to drink, I would prefer that they drink beer, a drink with far lower ABV than country liquor, even if that means drinking the higher ABV beers commonly found in India. I hope that one day country liquor, a scourge in India, will be eradicated and that most Indians who choose to drink will choose to buy a beer as a lifestyle choice and for refreshment.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who is a real expert in this field, for initiating the debate in this crucial area. Not to be ignored in this debate is the fact that, for us in the UK, VAT and duties have a strong impact on what British consumers choose to drink. Unfortunately, the Treasury has not kept up with an evolving drinks market. Over the past 30 years, spirit consumption has been flat, but beer consumption has fallen 1% year on year, while during the same period cider and wine consumption have grown by 5% year on year. Despite that, cider and wine, which are stronger drinks, now account for 41% of all alcohol consumed but only 37% of government alcohol revenues.

If the duty framework is not adapted to the current market environment, it will have serious negative consequences, including people switching to stronger drinks. For example, the average ABV of cider is more than 5%, while the average ABV of beer is 20% lower at 4%. It is a lose-lose situation for the Government, with people drinking stronger products and the Government getting less revenue. Does the Minister agree that a balanced duty framework will increase revenue and should be part of a co-ordinated wider government policy to address alcohol harm by reducing units consumed?

In this country, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, outlined, the Portman Group has done tremendous work in promoting responsible drinking. The truth is that the vast majority of adults in the UK drink socially, and 78% of them keep within the government-advertised consumption limits. Social patterns around drinking are improving. The drinks industry is promoting responsible drinking, supporting a number of programmes and working with local and national government bodies that really make a difference in tackling the various facets of alcohol issues.

Molson Coors supports two of the best alcohol responsibility programmes for its customers. First, there is Best Bar None, which has been referred to, for the on-trade. That programme celebrates the running of responsible venues, including how alcohol is marketed responsibly. It has been running for 10 years and there are more than 100 BBN programmes across the country, with more than 3,000 venues involved, so there is still scope to expand enormously. It has been very effective. For example, Doncaster’s BBN scheme reported a 36% drop in alcohol-related crime with 70% fewer police call-ups. Not only that, the night-time economy for towns and cities benefits. As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, Durham licensees reported a 75% cumulative increase in trade. The night-time economy is worth £66 billion and employs 1.3 million people. Programmes such as Best Bar None help to ensure that the industry is sustainable in the long term.

Secondly, there are community alcohol partnerships for the off-trade. That is about tackling under-18 drinking in local communities, with supermarkets and licensees getting together with local NGOs and working to engage and support local areas. It has been highly successful and there are great examples of cross-collaboration working. Molson Coors funds both those schemes alongside other drinks companies.

The Government can and must do everything that they can to encourage the development and take-up of those initiatives. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will support them?

Other successful programmes are Street Partners and Street Angels. They involve church groups getting together and being good Samaritans, giving up their time on late nights and early mornings to ensure that people on nights out are safe and helping them avoid getting into bad situations. Areas have reported an up to 60% reduction in crime because of those schemes.

That is why, when the Prime Minister speaks of the big society, I think of those people working late at night or early into the morning, engaging with their local communities. They are true heroes. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, there are other schemes, such as PubWatch and Purple Flag. Can the Government help those schemes to work more closely together?

I conclude that the common theme of those schemes is businesses and communities coming together on the ground to resolve local issues. That is where the Government, despite their cuts, must not be penny wise and pound foolish. Can the Minister confirm that the Government must find the funds to work with the drinks industry to support those schemes, which so greatly improve our communities in terms of the health and general well-being of their citizens?

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My Lords, first, I welcome the opportunity that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, gives us to discuss this problem. The question of drink is one that you attack with great reluctance or a flak jacket—one of the two—because that is not popular. We might be called fuddy-duddies, or I might be called a wild Welsh Wesleyan Methodist teetotaller. I am, and I make no apology for it.

How seriously do we treat this issue? Today, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Doctor Jewell, issued his report. He states that across Wales, life expectancy has been increasing for the past two decades. For men, it is now 77.6 years; for women, it is 81.8 years; but in the most deprived areas, deaths from alcohol are three and a half times higher for men and twice as high for women. For instance, we can contrast the inner-city Grangetown area in Cardiff with Dinas Powys in the Vale of Glamorgan. In Grangetown, the life expectancy for men is 71.5 years. Four miles away in Dinas Powys, it is 81.8 years. There is a 10-year difference according to the area and culture in which you live.

In a previous report, Russell Davies said that the real opiate of the Welsh was alcohol. The hopelessness of destitution demanded a shortcut to oblivion; a short route out of their misery. That will be the reason for many people drinking excessive alcohol. Today in Wales, 15% of hospital admissions are because of alcohol, at a cost of between £70 million and £85 million per year. Imagine what we could do with that in the health service in Wales.

Other parts of the UK have similar, if not worse problems, but there are 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in Wales every year. Is it possible to tackle this problem effectively? There are many suggestions. Scotland has introduced the 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol. It could well be introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom to halt youth binge drinking. I support it, but I wonder whether it affects those older people who just want an evening of relaxation, which then costs them more.

Responsible licensees are the best friends of responsible drinking, because they had to safeguard not only their reputation but their licences. The problem of the supermarkets—not only big supermarkets, but the so-called booze shops—is that drinks are far cheaper than in pubs. Minimum pricing could help, and for health’s sake, as has already been mentioned, we need to get rid of special offers. It used to be said in the old days that the notice in a pub would read, “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence.” That was a special offer. Could we end these completely? That would not be a popular move. But one street in Cardiff, St Mary’s Street, was recorded by an American journalist as being like the night of the living dead. Do we need stronger regulation?

The drinks industry also has a responsibility when it comes to pricing soft drinks. I know friends who are trying to ease up on their drinking, but a drink of Coca-Cola will cost as much sometimes as a pint of beer. Somehow we need to ask the drinks industry to co-operate by pricing soft drinks far more responsibly and reasonably. Is it also time to bestow star ratings on pubs, clubs and supermarkets?

Finally, I was at the funeral of a friend of mine two weeks ago. She had five children. They had moved to a house in mid-Wales with a dangerous running stream at the bottom of the garden. People said to her, “You know, we should fence off that stream.” Instead she said, “No. I should teach the children to swim.” It is from the example given by their parents that children learn to drink moderately—if drinking at all—but it is a big responsibility.

I do not think anyone knows the full answer, but at least this evening’s debate will contribute something to that thinking.

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My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Coussins for instigating this important debate. It goes to the heart of where the line is drawn in the relationship between government, all the public health concerns of government, and the drinks industry. There is a fundamental conflict of interest here. The Government pick up the costs, particularly the healthcare and social care costs, of the victims of alcohol abuse. You only have to go into an A&E department at night to see the large numbers there or visit a liver transplant unit.

The other side of this divide—and it is a divide—is that those who work in the drinks industry have a duty to their shareholders to maintain their profits. Therefore, however they work with Government, they are certainly not there to put themselves out of business.

There are some things which the drinks industry can do, and is uniquely placed to do. For instance, training bar staff properly to challenge those who are underaged or who are already intoxicated and wanting to buy more alcohol. That has improved greatly.

The labelling commitments, however, are lagging far behind. Some of us wonder, where are these clear labels? Where are the labels unified on a voluntary basis? There was an attempt to bring in legislation in this House during the term of the previous Government, but that has not come to fruition. The responsibility deal has yet to prove its worth. As has already been said, the BMA felt that it could not carry on. Neither could the Royal College of Physicians, for the same reason. It felt that the voice of the drinks industry was disproportionately strong in the way that the forward path for alcohol control and strategy was being developed.

There has been talk already about unit pricing, but I would ask the Government, what has happened to the question that I raised previously about such pricing being index-linked? As soon as we begin to have inflation the price per unit will become almost insignificant, unless that is priced as a proportion and index-linked as a percentage cost rather than an absolute cost. Indeed, it is worth noting that Scotland has already put up its so-called minimum price.

Some of the advertising we see is very clever. A phrase such as “Why let good times go bad?” has a subtle message behind it: that you have a good time by drinking. There is not a message there that you can have a good time on sparkling water. I am from Wales, and we have some wonderful sparkling water. It comes in blue bottles, called Ty Nant. It is extremely fashionable in Wales.

There is a message that you can have a good time without even having to have a drink. But there is a subtlety behind some of this advertising that is worrying, particularly in the use of social media.

While I applaud the Government for the action that they are taking, I would ask them to take a long hard look at the conflicts of interest that lie inherently in having too close a relationship with the industry, and in not having a high enough profile for the voices of those in public health; in particular, working with local authorities and others to make sure that alcohol control measures are effectively implemented.

We hear a lot about education strategies; I am afraid that the evidence that those have actually altered behaviour is very weak, although there is certainly evidence that they have increased awareness. I am afraid I cannot say that all is going perfectly well. I would like to see a little more separation—not to stop any of the moves, but to try to get clearer labelling in place, and index-linked prices.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for initiating this debate and for enabling us to scrutinise the performance of the drinks industry. Here I declare my interest as a patron of Street Pastors in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Since the Portman Group was founded in 1989, the affordability of alcohol has increased by 32%. The number of alcohol-related deaths in England has doubled from 3,157 to 6,669, and the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England has doubled in the 10 years since 2002 from 510,000 to 1.173 million. Today half of violent crime and domestic abuse is linked to alcohol, some 1 million cases in 2010-11.

Industry bodies such as the Portman Group and Drinkaware promote education, but the evidence says that on its own, education does not change behaviour. In fact the World Health Organisation document, Alcohol in the European Union states:

“There is evidence that social responsibility messages … benefit the reputation of the sponsor more than they do public health.”

I question why the Portman Group has attacked independent reports that support minimum unit pricing despite independent evidence that says that reducing the affordability of alcohol is critical. Why does the Portman Group do this? The industry blames a small minority of people for drinking irresponsibly, but all the evidence tells us that it is no longer a small minority. Specifically, we should note that the industry spends some £800 million a year on alcohol marketing, and that the industry is not protecting children. In the UK we have some of the laxest alcohol advertising regulations in Europe. Why is alcohol advertising allowed in cinemas showing 12 and 15 certificate films? The regulations allow alcohol advertising to be shown as long as the under-18 audience does not exceed 25%. Yet the proportion of the UK population made up of under-18s is actually only 21%. Worryingly, the industry is moving its marketing spend online, where children are particularly vulnerable. Some 34% of Facebook users are under the age of 18. With regard to television, Alcohol Concern estimated that 5.2 million children could have been exposed to alcohol advertising during TV coverage of the 2010 World Cup.

Crucially, there is a fundamental conflict of interest. The alcohol industry has a legal duty to maximise its return for its stakeholders, and yet reducing harm relies on reducing consumption levels across the population. That can be done only by minimum pricing. Evidence from Professor Petra Meier from the University of Sheffield has estimated that if everyone drank within recommended guidelines, industry profits would fall by 40%.

The industry has, in my view, presided over the destruction of our traditional drinking culture. Most people now drink at home; most alcohol is purchased in supermarkets; alcohol has, until recently, been getting stronger; measures have been getting larger; alcohol has been sold as a loss leader and can be cheaper than water; and traditional neighbourhood pubs cannot compete and are closing. I have concluded that the alcohol industry has become part of the problem. Self-regulation and voluntarism does not work, and the industry should not be permitted to have a role in influencing the making of policy on alcohol when it has such a clear financial interest in the outcome. It should now, and in future, implement decisions made by others.

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My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for initiating this debate about the role of the drinks industry in helping to prevent alcohol misuse and in promoting what is described as responsible drinking. Presumably, though, not drinking alcohol is also responsible and socially acceptable. Other speakers have already referred to the nature and extent of the issue we face, with almost 1 million alcohol-related violent crimes and well over 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in a year. The industry—whether retailers, producers, pubs, bars, restaurants or shops—recognises the problem and the major producers have established the Portman Group as a self-regulator. I do not know whether the driving force behind the creation of a self-regulator was an ethical or moral one in this case or whether it was concern among the producers at the potential consequences for the industry if they were not seen to be taking action themselves. Perhaps it was both.

In 2009, the Commons Health Select Committee heard evidence that industry profits would fall by 40% if everyone drank within recommended guidelines, a point which I think the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, just made. I am told that over 10 million people currently drink regularly over the guidelines, so we are not talking about a problem affecting a small minority. Self-regulation can work but does not necessarily work, particularly if the objective is to do the minimum needed to try to keep the wolves from the door, as we have seen with the ineffectual Press Complaints Commission.

The drinks industry—that is, retailers, producers and the on-trade and off-trade—must make it clear, and be seen by its actions to be making it clear, that it will take whatever steps it can to eliminate the irresponsible sale and promotion of alcohol in order to make it easier for, and help encourage, those who wish to drink alcohol to do so both in an acceptable manner to society as a whole and in a less risky and dangerous way to their own health. However, to take those steps means looking at the issues of price, availability and marketing, which the Government’s responsibility deal with the industry did not really do. That was why key organisations, as has already been said, declined to become involved. The Government’s responsibility deal did not really address vital issues, despite their saying that too much of the industry still supports and encourages irresponsible behaviour through poor product location, underage sales, excessively cheap drinks and the encouragement of excessive drinking.

It is right that the industry should set out what action it has taken. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred to a number of such actions but at the moment it does not look as if it is enough. The industry is a source of pleasure to many and of jobs and revenue to the Exchequer, just like other industries, but the impact of its product when misused—as it is all too frequently—is also a source of expenditure for the taxpayer and of loss to other industries and the economy in general through resultant absenteeism and illness, leaving aside the social effects of excessive drinking. I hope that the industry will direct more expenditure and effort into self-regulation, publicity, public relations and campaigning towards actions and developments to reduce drinking and will not be tempted, as appears to have happened in at least one other industry, towards any actions behind the scenes to dilute efforts to address the problem that we all recognise exists.

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My Lords, I join other speakers in offering my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this debate and on the contributions that we have heard during it from other speakers. We have had a range of views and I think we could say that we are all agreed on one thing: the damage that alcohol can cause. However, as to the solutions, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who said that he did not know what they were and that there might be a whole range of them. The solutions seemed to vary from more regulation to self-regulation and a bit of both. I want to set out roughly where the Government are in relation to these matters.

We believe, and I think the House is in agreement with this, that drinking alcohol to excess is a key cause of societal harm, including crime, family breakdown and poverty, as well as being a leading cause of health harm. At odds with the trends across Europe, alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom has increased quite dramatically over the past 50 years, although there has been a positive reduction in overall alcohol consumption over the past few years. That is a good thing but we believe that it is still too high and that it causes misery and pain to individuals, destroys families and undermines communities. Binge drinking accounts for half of all the alcohol consumed in this country and the crime and violence that causes generates mayhem on the streets, spreads fear in our communities and drains hospital resources. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for reminding noble Lords just what A and E can look like on a Friday or Saturday night.

The Government are therefore convinced that tackling the problems of alcohol is a priority, which is why we launched our alcohol strategy in March. We have witnessed a dramatic change in people’s attitude to alcohol over the past decade. We have seen a culture grow where it has become acceptable to be excessively drunk in public and for people to cause nuisance and harm to themselves and, equally importantly, to others. A combination of ignorance, irresponsibility and poor habits have led to alcohol-related harm across crime, health and all other areas costing society an estimated £21 billion per year, which I think was the figure that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, quoted. Some 44% of all violent crime is carried out by individuals under the influence of alcohol. There were almost 1 million alcohol-related violent crimes in 2010-11 alone, and alcohol is one of the three biggest lifestyle risk factors for disease and death in the United Kingdom, after smoking and obesity.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, that we take the health side of this very seriously. The alcohol strategy that we published in March might have emanated from the Home Office, but it had input from all other departments. The Department of Health takes these matters very seriously. In his foreword to the alcohol strategy, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it very clear that we will not tolerate this level of alcohol-related harm.

The Government’s alcohol strategy therefore sends out a strong message that we will crack down on the binge-drinking culture in our country; cut the alcohol-fuelled violence and disorder that still affects many of our communities; and cut the number of people drinking irresponsibly. If I take that original figure I gave, £21 billion per year, for all the costs of alcohol-related harm, the cost of crime alone is estimated to be in the order of £11 billion per year. That is simply unsustainable.

The strategy sets out a wide range of actions to tackle the excessive consumption of alcohol, including the introduction of minimum unit pricing. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, that although Scotland has announced its intention to bring in minimum unit pricing, it has not been brought in yet. In our strategy for England and Wales we announced that we will bring in a consultation on the level of minimum unit pricing, not on whether we should have it. We will be doing that in the autumn; we shall put forward a range of options as to what would be appropriate. There will also be a commitment to consult on a ban on multi-buy promotions. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, that we have rebalanced the Licensing Act to enable local agencies to take the right action, including giving local councils the power to use early morning alcohol restriction orders and charge a levy for late-night licences to contribute to the cost of extra policing. Last week we published our response to the consultation, Dealing with the Problems of Late Night Drinking, and I commend that to noble Lords.

I am grateful, again, to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, that he offered praise for the changes we have made in licensing. I imagine that he was one of those, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who took part in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act that my noble friend, my predecessor, took through this House last year, which dealt with some of these matters.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, also asked about the Government’s spending on alcohol awareness, and claimed that it was comparatively low compared to what the industry itself was spending. The strategy sets out how the Government and industry will work together to tackle alcohol-related harms and will help to give individuals the information that they need to drink responsibly. We launched a fully-integrated Change for Life campaign in February this year, communicating the health harms of drinking. Our intention is to extend this social marketing campaign if the evidence shows that it improves health outcomes and is good value for money. We all know that advertising does not always work; one remembers the story of the late Lord Leverhulme, who said he knew that half his advertising worked and half did not but that the trouble was that he did not know which half worked. We want to look at our advertising, therefore, and see what works and what does not.

On the subject of advertising, again there have been differing views from noble Lords. I appreciate what my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones said about there possibly not being a case for further regulation in this field, whereas others—I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rosser—would prefer a greater degree of regulation. Extensive regulatory regimes are already in place to control advertising and marketing of alcohol products, which are pretty robust, despite what has been said, especially in relation to the protection of young people and vulnerable groups. Obviously, as I said, we will have to look at the evidence on that and at the evidence of the effect of that advertising. We would prefer to continue down a route of self-regulation but, obviously, if we find that advertising is causing problems, we might have to consider that as an area for regulation in future. My gut instinct would be not to go for further regulation at this stage, when we have a pretty robust regulatory regime as it is, with a great deal of self-regulation and co-regulation.

It is also acknowledged, and I think that most noble Lords would agree with this, that alcohol consumption in moderation can have a positive impact on adults’ well-being, especially where this encourages sociability. Well run community pubs and other businesses form a key part of the fabric of neighbourhoods, providing employment and social opportunities in our local communities. At a time of austerity and global economic pressures, the alcohol industry and the wider retail and hospitality sectors play a key role in our economy, contributing some £29 billion each year and playing an important part in our exports. In total it is estimated that some 1.8 million jobs in the UK are related to the alcohol industry, so a profitable alcohol industry enhances the UK economy.

The strategy puts a strong focus on a responsible industry that has a direct and powerful influence on consumer behaviours. It is the responsibility of the entire industry, alcohol producers and retailers in both the on-trade and the off-trade, to promote, market, advertise and sell their products responsibly, and that is what we want. We know that growth and responsibility can exist well together. The Government welcome self- regulation and active initiatives, driven by the licensing trade in partnership with the police and local authorities. I was very glad that both the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and others mentioned Best Bar None, Purple Flag and businesses joining together to form business improvement districts.

The noble Baroness also mentioned Durham. I have visited the project in Durham; I did so partly because I had been at university there many years ago, and things have changed somewhat now. I was taken around by the Chief Constable of the Durham constabulary and I was very impressed with what they were doing. We have seen in Durham that a thriving and growing night-time economy can operate where excessive drinking is tackled consistently and robustly by business, the police and local authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, over the three-year period of taking part in a Best Bar None scheme in Durham, licensees reported an estimated 75% cumulative increase in trade; a 50% increase in town-centre footfall and an expected 87% reduction in violent crime, and we should all note that last figure. As well as sending out clear messages that crime and disorder will not be tolerated in pubs, clubs and wider locations, such schemes have been proven to increase footfall and stimulate other businesses, whether cinemas, restaurants or whatever.

The Portman Group, which the noble Baroness knows well from her past—I believe that she was chief executive—introduced a Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks in 1996. All alcohol products sold or marketed in the UK are subject to the rules of the code, which prevent alcohol being marketed to children in a way that would encourage excessive or irresponsible consumption. We are working with the Portman Group to ensure that, where unacceptable marketing occurs, it results in the removal of offending brands from retailers.

The Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal also taps into the potential for businesses to work with the Government and public health organisations to improve public health through their influence over food, physical activity, alcohol and health in the workplace. The responsibility deal recognises that there are areas where doing nothing simply is not an option, but the something to be done is not always necessarily best done by the Government.

I see that my time is coming to an end. We are beginning to make progress in this area: the fall in alcohol consumption over the past few years is something that we should welcome, as we should the further progress that we hope to make as a result of the alcohol strategy. While progress continues to be made, there is still more to be done. That is why the strategy sets a new challenge to industry on product labelling, unit content, actions on advertising and product placement. We all agree, as I think my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno said, that there are no simple solutions. However, we accept that we should rightly be challenged on our policies, and there is no better place for that than this House.

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My Lords, I am sorry that my timing is a bit wrong tonight. I beg to move that the House adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 pm.

Sitting suspended.