When the government unveiled shock new guidance on alcohol consumption last year, the move to bring the men’s recommended limit in line with women’s caused all the controversy.
But a far less polemical aspect of the chief medical officer’s guidance at the time - the decision not to include a single-occasion recommendation - is now causing real ructions.
The guidance has proved pivotal in a landmark ruling allowing a series of super-strength alcohol products to remain on shelves despite containing a third of the recommended weekly 14 units in just one single-usage can.
Last week, the Portman Group’s Independent Complaints Panel (ICP) cleared the 500ml Oranjeboom, Crest Super and K Cider products of causing potential harm. It pointed to glaring gaps in the CMO’s recommendations as a reason for clearing the products, which are all 8.4% abv or more and clearly designed to be drunk in one serving.
So is the guidance to blame or has the Portman Group simply been weak on super-strength?
The complaints about Oranjeboom, K Cider and Crest Super all pre-dated the CMO’s 2016 guidance. Portsmouth City Council and Medway Council accused the manufacturers of encouraging drinkers to “down in one go” the “incredibly high” abv 500ml cans. And the packaging did indeed state the cans should be drunk quickly to stop the taste being lost.
The ICP wanted to hear the CMO’s guidance before making a ruling, resulting in a long delay - so long, in fact, that United Dutch Breweries and Wells & Young’s voluntarily removed super-strong Oranjeboom and Crest Super from sale in the meantime.
But the guidance offered little clarity. Against the advice of industry figures including the Portman Group, the CMO ditched previous guidelines on single-occasion drinking, under which women were advised to drink no more than two to three units a day and men no more than three to four. The Portman Group slammed the final recommendations as “confusing and contradictory”.
These cans came under fire from local councils for encouraging binge drinking…
Sold in UK? No
Sold in UK? Yes
Sold in UK? No
So while the panel last week ruled all of the products encouraged drinkers to consume at least four units on one occasion - five in the case of 10% abv Crest Super - it claimed it was unable to say whether that level of drinking was dangerous because of the lack of guidance.
A senior drinks industry source claims the CMO’s desire to avoid naming a ‘safe’ level of drinking - Dame Sally Davies famously said any alcohol raised the risk of cancer - has spectacularly backfired.
“The process surrounding the CMO’s recommendations was a shambles from start to finish,” says the source. “To be honest it felt like a stitch-up.
“The CMO’s advisers included several who were allowed to hijack the process despite their views on temperance and anti-alcohol stance.
“The decisions by the ICP could be seen as an unintended consequence of the guidelines.”
The recent decision does stand in stark contrast to a similar hearing in January 2015, when the ICP ordered a raft of other so-called super-strength products - 9% abv cans of Kestrel Super, Carlsberg Special Brew, and Skol Super - to be stripped from the shelves.
At the time, the panel used the former guidelines to highlight that the 500ml cans contained as much as 4.5 units more than the recommended maximum daily intake.
Its decision also came shortly after a string of suppliers including AB InBev, Carlsberg and SAB Miller, backed by the leading supermarkets, had just signed a Responsibility Deal pledge not to sell any carbonated products containing more than four units in one can.
While that pledge technically still exists, the Deal has in effect been consigned to history - and the industry source believes that was another factor in last week’s decision.
“The fact is that under the coalition government and the Deal there was a co-ordinated strategy to tackle super-strength alcohol, which just doesn’t exist any more.”
But the ICP’s claim it was powerless to rule against super-strength cans may be somewhat bogus, says Dr James Nicholls, research director at Alcohol Research UK. After all, the panel is also entitled to take account of current attitudes and norms including any relevant government and other reputable sources of guidance.
An anonymous source is equally sceptical. ”The Portman Group was the first to put the boot in when the CMO guidelines came out. It’s all a bit convenient that now it is saying it can’t act against these drinks and the CMO is the one who will have to carry the can.”