An independent evaluation of the Responsibility Deal (RD) commissioned by the Department of Health has found it is unlikely to have any significant impact on reducing alcohol consumption, and as a result urges the government to make alcohol more expensive and devise sanctions against suppliers.
The Policy Innovation Research Unit at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine was appointed by then-health secretary Andrew Lansley in 2012 to conduct a sweeping review of the voluntary measures to tackle obesity and alcohol abuse.
Its two reports have subsequently found that the measures on alcohol had been, at best, “ineffective” with actions “poorly reported” by suppliers.
Researchers claimed that just 11% of alcohol pledge-related activities were a direct result of the RD in action, with 65% being activities that drinks companies and retailers were already undertaking, such as reducing the strength of products and bringing in better labelling.
The report went on to suggest that the wave of lower ABV products could potentially increase, rather than decrease, the number of alcohol products on the market and make the nation’s alcohol problems worse.
“The evidence is clear that an alcohol control strategy should support effective interventions to make alcohol less available and more expensive,” concluded lead author Cécile Knai.
The researchers said they had analysed all publicly available data about organisations’ plans and progress towards achieving key alcohol pledges of the deal as well as conducting a systematic review of international evidence about the different types of interventions proposed by the organisations, to see how effective the pledges would be in reducing harm from alcohol.
They found 75% of the pledges aimed to provide consumer information and choice, interventions which the study said were known to have limited effectiveness. The other 25% included measures such as reducing alcohol content in products.
“If implemented fully, the pledges may potentially be effective in improving consumers’ knowledge and awareness, but they are unlikely to affect consumption,” one of the reports reads. “This suggests that, in their present form, they are unlikely to have any significant positive impact on population health in England. “
The second report attacked suppliers over the quality of their reporting changes to products and said that although the evidence suggested the unit reduction achieved ranged from between 1.6m to 1.1bn units being removed, it was unclear if this was a result of the RD.
It said that more than one in ten of the company progress reports in 2014 under the Deal were “identical” to those made in 2013 and said the vast majority of action in the deal surrounded the launch of new, lower strength products, whilst concluding that “most alcohol pledge signatories appear to have committed to actions that they would have undertaken anyway, regardless of the RD.”
The damning report follows an early scoping review carried out by the unit in 2013 which found there was “little evidence” the Responsibility Deal would work better than regulation and recommended bring in a system of sanctions for companies who missed targets.
Knai said: “We know that effective voluntary agreements are based on clearly-defined, evidence-based and quantifiable targets, which require partners to go beyond ‘business as usual’, and penalties for not delivering the pledges.
“However, the alcohol pledges of the Public Health Responsibility haven’t met these criteria.
“Excessive alcohol consumption continues to be a major public health problem in England and needs to be addressed by effective interventions, notably those which change the market environment to make alcohol less available and more expensive. We hope our evaluation will contribute to decision-making about how to effectively tackle this problem.”