The drinks industry has slammed the introduction of new government drinking guidelines, accusing NHS chiefs of colluding with anti-industry lobbyists on a policy that leaves the UK out of step with the rest of Europe and the world.
Under new guidelines, which came in today, the advice on the limit of alcohol men should drink has been slashed by a third overnight, to a maximum of 14 units, bringing them into line with women.
Industry bodies said the advice flew in the face of a significant fall in alcohol consumption and questioned why the chief medical officers, led by Dame Sally Davies, had been able to bring in a policy closely dictated by leading opponents of the alcohol industry, while the industry itself was denied a place at the table.
“20 years after the original guidelines, all labelling advice is out of date overnight. We are disappointed that the guidelines are expected to come in with immediate effect”
“The UK has seen a significant drop in alcohol consumption through the effective working partnership between the government and the drinks industry, including reproducing - voluntarily - CMO guidelines on labels,” said Miles Beale, chief executive for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA). “This partnership approach successfully influenced consumer behaviour. Yet 20 years after the original guidelines, all labelling advice is out of date overnight. We are disappointed that the guidelines are expected to come in with immediate effect and that government’s industry partners have not been involved in any consultation.”
Beale added the changes represented a “new international precedent”.
Under the guidelines, UK men are being urged to drink much less than those in Ireland (21.2 units), Denmark (21), New Zealand (19), whereas for men in Spain it is 35.
Of the 37 countries in the world that set alcohol guidelines, 32 clearly distinguish men from women in the advice they give, with only five - Australia, the Netherlands, Albania, Guyana and Grenada - setting the same guidelines for men and women, until now.
“The UK is breaking with established international precedent by recommending the same guidelines for men and women. It also means that UK men are now being advised to drink significantly less than their European counterparts”
Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, questioned why UK men were being singled out for special treatment.
“The vast majority of us - more than four in five adults of us - more than four in five adults - drink within the current lower risk guidelines,” he said. “Guidelines are important because they help people make informed choices about their own drinking so it’s vital that they are trusted and understood by consumers.
“What is surprising is that the UK is breaking with established international precedent by recommending the same guidelines for men and women. It also means that UK men are now being advised to drink significantly less than their European counterparts.”
Several industry sources also criticised the make-up of the guidelines development group, which they said contained a number of individuals with a track record of lobbying for measures such as minimum pricing and for for government regulation instead of a voluntary relationship with the industry.
They include Mark Petticrew, professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which after being employed by the DH to carry out an evaluation of the Responsibility Deal produced a series of reports calling for it to be scrapped.
“There have to be huge question marks over how the chief medical officers are allowed to change the alcohol guidelines overnight based on the views of people who have vested interests to attack the alcohol industry”
Another leading player, Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, has previously accused the government of being in bed with the tobacco and alcohol industries, while John Holmes, of the University of Sheffield School of Health and Related Research, spearheaded the evidence drawn up in favour of minimum pricing before it was directed by ministers.
Mark Bellis, director of policy, research and international development at Public Health Wales, was among those who walked out of the Responsibility Deal after the government’s u-turn on minimum pricing.
There was also a place for former Tomorrow’s World presenter Vivienne Parry, who has most recently researched genomics and proton beam therapy.
“There have to be huge question marks over how the chief medical officers are allowed to change the alcohol guidelines overnight based on the views of people who have vested interests to attack the alcohol industry,” said one source. “I would like to know what the role of ministers has been in this - or are they just allowing the anti-alcohol lobby to dictate policy from within the CMO’s office?”
“We are uncertain whether there is sufficient agreement among experts to support these new guidelines”
Another industry source said: “This was supposed to be a group of independent experts giving advice but you only have to look at their track record to see a clear vested interest. You have to wonder if this has anything to do with the government’s current problems with the wider NHS.”
CAMRA chief executive Tim Page added: “The best kind of health advice is that based on clear and undisputed evidence.
“We are uncertain whether there is sufficient agreement among experts to support these new guidelines. We will be consulting with our members and other consumers to find out their views on the guidance and will feed back their opinions to the Chief Medical Officer.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “The members of the devolvement group were chosen based on their scientific expertise and all have the scientific credentials required to be a part of this group. The decisions have been made based on scientific evidence not on politics.”
Sir Ian Gilmore said: “The new guidelines from the CMOs are based on evidence that the risks of getting a range of cancers increase at low levels of alcohol consumption. New evidence also shows there are no grounds to recommend drinking on health grounds.
”It’s about making sure people are fully informed of the impact of alcohol.
“People have a right to know the risks associated with drinking alcohol. Only with accurate and transparent information are people able to make an informed choice about how much alcohol they consume. It is paradoxical for the drinks industry to suggest an independent expert in liver disease and public health should have a vested interest.”