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Alcohol: Calorie Labelling

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 13 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Earl Howe on 11 February (HL Deb, col. 535), whether they will publish a list of the alcohol producers and retailers who have pledged themselves voluntarily in the Responsibility Deal to display the calories and sugar content of the drink on the labels of their alcohol products.

My Lords, we welcome companies such as Sainsbury’s, which have taken action in this area. While there is no responsibility deal pledge to voluntarily display energy and sugar content on the labels of alcohol products, we will continue to consider what more can be done through the responsibility deal to improve public health, including through consumer information.

I am truly grateful to the noble Earl for the efforts he has been making to try to persuade the drinks industry and the supermarkets that they have to accept some responsibility for the damage to health that alcohol causes. From the pledges he has been given by the producers and the supermarkets, can he say how many have as yet actually displayed calories and sugar on the labels of their lagers and beers? While I acknowledge that progress is happily now being made with wine, will he say what he intends to do, given that Tesco and Morrisons have now publicly stated that in no way will they go down this route?

My Lords, I mentioned Sainsbury’s, which is setting a very good example in this area, but I can tell the noble Lord that Waitrose and the Co-op have also taken steps to display calories on their own-brand alcohol labelling. Naturally, we hope that others will follow their lead. As yet, none has, and it is a pity that Tesco has said that it will not, but we will continue to work on this issue. Work is also going on at a European level, and the noble Lord may like to know that the UK pressed for mandatory energy declarations during negotiations on the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation. It met with significant resistance, and we did not succeed, but we are still pressing for that.

No, I do not, but it is worth noting that 49 businesses have signed up to the voluntary responsibility deal pledge on awareness of alcohol units, calories and other information. Those organisations have published calorie information on their websites about every single alcohol product. If one is buying online, it is possible to compare one product with another.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that alcopops are rearing their heads again? These sweetened drinks have sugar added to them to make them attractive, in a cynical attempt to bring the young on board to alcohol. They contain more than 170 calories a bottle—about the same as a sweetened chocolate milk drink—as well as the alcohol. Is there anything we can do to bring this to the attention of the supermarkets? I believe Sainsbury’s has alcopops on its shelves now.

My Lords, in fact, sales of alcopops are in marked decline, to such an extent that the market for these products looks like disappearing in the next few years. Nevertheless, I take the noble Lord’s point. It is always a concern if people are putting their health at risk by drinking too much alcohol or consuming too much sugar. At the same time, one should not always assume that an alcopop is a high-calorie drink. For example, ready-mixed gin and tonic is technically an alcopop, but very often low-calorie tonic goes into it.

My Lords, there is an unfavourable contrast in the behaviour of the UK alcohol industry as compared with the French when it comes to social responsibility. The UK alcohol industry strongly markets super-strong beers and lagers as the cheapest way of getting alcohol, whereas the French industry has suppressed access to low-quality wines and other cheap drinks through pricing. Would my noble friend urge the industry in the UK, as part of the social responsibility deal, to follow the French example?

My noble friend may like to know that, in fact, 125 companies have pledged, under the responsibility deal, to help people drink within the guidelines. Perhaps the most significant pledge that has been made is the one by more than 30 alcohol retailers and producers to remove 1 billion units of alcohol from the market—around 2%—by the end of 2015. Companies, pub chains and retailers have also made a whole range of other pledges. We are making significant progress in this area.

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Earl is aware of quite how much this costs the NHS. Abuse of alcohol is very damaging to families and to individuals but also costs the NHS a fortune. Is it not about time that we, and the Government, took responsibility by backing the consumer, the patient and the taxpayer rather than siding with the drinks companies? Is it not about time not only for labelling, as my noble friend has called for, but for a minimum pricing policy?

The noble Baroness raises a number of areas. We believe that this issue can benefit from action on a number of fronts. One of them is the responsibility deal to persuade the industry to take voluntary action. We are making significant progress in this area. Of course, the other is behaviour change by individuals and the choices that people make. Ultimately, people need to take control of their own behaviour, and the Chief Medical Officer is currently overseeing a review of the alcohol guidelines so that people can make informed choices about their drinking at all stages of their life.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Taverne asked my noble friend the Minister to commend the French for their high-price wine policy. I commend them for their low-price wine policy. At home in France, I buy a very good everyday drinking wine from my local wine grower for €8 for a five-litre box.

My Lords, I would love to receive details but, once again, it is a question of how much my noble friend consumes rather than how much he pays.

My Lords, the Minister may recall that last September I shared with him my concern at the ever-rising alcoholic content of wines that are on sale in supermarkets and the need for greater provision of lower percentage wines so that the consumer can indeed make a choice. What progress has he made in that area?

My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned the Chief Medical Officer. Did he see her comment last week that the Government ought to consider a sugar tax? What response have the Government made to their own Chief Medical Officer?

My Lords, as I have just indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, taxation is always an instrument that Governments consider. We continue to keep the international evidence on that under review, but we think that for now the voluntary action we have put in place is delivering results. We will keep a close eye on progress but taxation is always an instrument that Governments can deploy.