Dame Sally Davies has sharply criticised supermarket tactics on alcohol

The government’s chief medical officer for England today launched a robust attack on supermarkets, accusing them of using “deplorable” marketing methods to entice customers to buy “ever greater quantities of alcohol”.

In her annual report (PDF) on the state of the nation’s health, Professor Dame Sally Davies said retailers were to blame for encouraging the culture of binge drinking. She also urged the government to think again about its U-turn on minimum unit pricing (MUP).

Her intervention, which comes a week after Chancellor George Osborne cut the duty on beer and froze duty on spirits and cider in his Budget, has increased the growing divide between the DH and ministers from the Home Office and the Treasury, with Public Health England also backing a return to the MUP policy, which was ditched a year ago.

“I deplore the methods which retailers use to entice consumers to purchase ever-greater quantities of alcohol”

Dame Sally Davies

“Despite clear health and societal risks, retailers continue to sell alcohol using methods which I consider to be irresponsible,” said Dame Sally. “I deplore the methods which retailers use to entice consumers to purchase ever-greater quantities of alcohol.

“For example, supermarkets promote multibuy offers and sell alcohol below cost price; licensed premises have redefined ‘small’ glasses of wine, and omitted from menus the 125ml measure which they are legally obliged to offer.”

The CMO also raised doubts that the government’s plan to ban the sale of below-cost alcohol would go far enough.

“I note that modelled data suggests that charging a minimum of 45p per unit of alcohol should be more effective in reducing premature deaths,” she said.

Dame Sally confirmed she was due to publish new guidelines within the coming year that could reduce the recommended levels of safe drinking.

She also raised fears over the quantity of alcohol advertising. “One recent study found that there were 111 visual references to alcohol in every hour of broadcast football matches: almost two per minute.

“This is particularly concerning as televised football matches are popular among children as well as adults, and the evidence shows that children exposed to alcohol marketing tend to drink alcohol at an earlier age and in greater quantities than those who are not exposed.”

However, the ASA this week strongly denied that children were being subjected to more alcohol ads, with Shahriar Coupal, director of advertising policy at the authority, telling the Westminster Social Policy Forum on alcohol policy that a study had shown the number of ads viewed by children had only increased from 2.7 per week on average in 2007 to 2.8 per week in 2012.

Sugar tax

The CMO did not confine her attack to alcohol, also repeating her recent call for the government to consider imposing a so-called “sugar tax”.

“I call on manufacturers to ramp up reformulation of products to use less added sugar,” she said. “If voluntary efforts fail to deliver then we, as a society, may need to consider the public health benefits that could be derived from regulation such as a ‘sugar tax’.”

PHE focus on alcohol

The government is facing an increasing backlash from the DH over its major health policies.

On Tuesday Rosanna O’Connor, director of alcohol and drugs at Public Health England (PHE), told the Westminster forum that one of its strategies was to “support the evidence base that MUP is effective”.

O’Connor told the event there was strong evidence that increases in the price of alcohol led to reduced consumption and said PHE planned to “have a much greater focus on alcohol” in its second year of operation.

She also went on to describe the 16% fall in alcohol consumption since 2004 as “a blip”.

A British Retail Consortium spokesman said: “Given her position as Chief Medical Officer we would expect Professor Dame Sally Davies to follow any developments in public health policy around the world and to evaluate their potential benefits.

“However, the government’s position is quite clear that it is not pursuing minimum pricing at this stage, rather introducing a ban on below cost sales. Retailers are working hard to ensure that they are compliant with the ban which comes into force next month.”

Blog: On alcohol policy, local means local