A Panorama documentary aired on Monday night, ‘Dying for a Drink’, saw health groups express concerns about the direction of a cross-government committee on alcohol policy established by the DH.
The programme revealed that the DH has changed the committee’s name from the ‘Alcohol Strategy Group’ to the ‘Government and Partners Working Group on Alcohol’, in a move that critics say reflects undue closeness with industry.
Health groups are also worried that drinks industry representation on the committee has grown from two members in 2009/10 to seven in 2010/11.
But a DH spokesman said: "We are committed to challenging the assumption that the only way to change people's behaviour is through adding to rules and regulations.”
Everyone, from NHS staff to alcohol retailers, producers and pubs, had a role to play in reducing the harmful use of alcohol, he added.
The spokesman said that, via its Responsibility Deal - which includes industry players committing to voluntary pledges on issues such as marketing, labels and price - the government was working with the industry to get “speedier results”.
The DH insists that businesses can reach consumers more effectively, due to wide-ranging advertising and marketing experience, and that it makes sense for the government to utilise this expertise in tackling alcohol abuse.
“We have already seen encouraging signs with Asda pledging to stop displaying alcohol at the front of the stores and Heineken promising to reduce the alcohol content of one of its brands,” the spokesman said.
Significant policy shift
But Don Shenker, ceo of Alcohol Concern (a charity fighting alcohol misuse), said that increased industry representation on the committee represented a “significant shift” in the development of health policy.
There was nothing wrong with industry stakeholder involvement, Shenker said, as long as it did not play a key role in formulating alcohol health policy.
“The only way this country will reduce its alarmingly high levels of alcohol harm is through more effective regulation of sales and promotion, which the drinks industry is naturally in the business of blocking,” he said.
“Inviting the drinks industry to form alcohol health policy is an inherent contradiction which only ministers seem to be blind to.”
A spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “Criticisms levied by the likes of Shenker don’t tally with reality. We’ll get change in this area by sitting down and talking, and through people making commitments.
“One good example is health warnings on product labels. Voluntary agreements achieve results far faster than legislation, which has to be cleared on an EU level, which can take many years.”
Alcohol Concern is one of six major health groups that refused to sign the Responsibility Deal on alcohol in March.
Conflict of interest?
The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) also rejected the deal, and Katherine Brown, head of research and communications, said the IAS could not endorse self-regulation.
“There is clearly a conflict of interest between industry economic objectives and public health goals of reducing alcohol consumption and associated harms,” she said.
But in a letter to The Independent today sent to FoodManufacture.co.uk, Jeremy Beadles, ceo of the WSTA, Brigid Simmonds ceo of the British Beer and Pub Association and Campbell Evans, director of government affairs for the Scotch Whisky Association, denied there was a vested interest.
"Our members wish to discourage irresponsible consumption of alcohol because it undermines their brands and discredits their businesses. The drinks industry has both a duty to tackle alcohol misuse and a commercial interest in doing so," they wrote.
The signatories pointed out that NHS statistics published last week showed that alcohol consumption had fallen by 11% since 2004.