Where now with the booze and fags, health minister?

The government this week finally announced it was putting minimum pricing for alcohol on hold, just days after shelving plans for plain packets for cigarettes. Are you taking public health seriously?
I don’t have a problem with minimum unit pricing, there is a health argument, which I absolutely understand. Partly that comes from the cheapness of alcohol in supermarkets, which has meant people drinking at home rather than in pubs. But there is an important argument that people who are sensible and moderate drinkers would be less than impressed if they felt they were having to pay more for their alcohol to support those who have a problem.

Will the government’s ban on below-cost pricing be enough to tackle the nation’s alcohol problems? It’s not just about pricing. There has been a shift in culture during my lifetime. My mother drank probably the odd glass of wine at a party once every few months and a few G&Ts over the course of a year because she’s of a different generation, whereas I will drink alcohol at least once or twice a week. The culture has changed and some of that is about pricing, but there is no silver bullet.

You had to tell the Commons plain packaging for cigarettes was being put on hold even though you support the policy. How was that? I didn’t have to do it. I am a supporter and we haven’t said we won’t do it. We have just said we haven’t made a decision. We have postponed that decision until we see what comes out of Australia. That said I thought we would see some stuff from Australia already, which we haven’t, and that’s disappointing. But all good legislation has to be based on good sound evidence.

Since when did the UK government wait for the Australians to set policy? We don’t, but one of the mistakes the last government made was to legislate far too quickly without fully considering things. We have to have a debate, like you and I are having now, and if there is a criticism I would make it’s that we went straight to consultation on fags and we should have had a debate first.

Why did the government not consult on the principle of minimum pricing first, rather than just the level at which it should be set? I don’t know. I wasn’t in government then. When you do these things it’s very important to have an informed debate about the issue and [only] then you can start [drilling into the detail]. People’s knowledge is extremely low. On fags we didn’t have the debate with the people at large. People still call it plain packaging and it’s not plain packaging. The packets that are proposed have got lots of colours on them.

Six months ago you said the patience of the PM and health secretary Jeremy Hunt was wearing thin over lack of action under the Responsibility Deal. How is their patience now? There is a clamour, not just from the two of them, for some sort of action. There is a growing acceptance we have a serious problem with obesity and there is a good debate about the role of government and whether the role is to regulate, of which I would not be in favour. But if companies don’t deliver, the voices of those that do get louder.

Are you satisfied with the action by food and drink companies so far? We are making progress. The calories pledge is growing. I’m amazed at how responsible [some] people are. When I look at work to cut, for example, the amount of calories in chocolate bars, like Mars have done as one example, it’s absolutely brilliant. They don’t have to do it but are doing it for all the right reasons. But for me the big breakthrough is front-of-pack labelling. To be truthful I was cynical. Although I thought it was admirable when retailers said last October they would do it, I thought they wouldn’t. I certainly never thought they would do it by [this] summer. Now we’ve got to make sure people understand what they’re looking at and make sure people are better educated and informed.

How much of a blow is it that several leading companies have failed to sign up? I don’t think Coca-Cola have signed up yet and we thought they might when they found out that Pepsi had signed up. Coke seem to be doing things slightly differently but they’re certainly looking very seriously at how much sugar they put in their drinks and are promoting drinks with lower calories. I think they get the principle but of course you want them signed up and they still have time.

What has been the Landmark achievement of the Responsibility Deal?
There hasn’t been a landmark achievement. Front-of-pack labelling is a real achievement but to me the real test is when you see obesity rates drop.

What measures are you taking to widen the deal, particularly in hospitality and out-of-home? It’s the takeaways and very popular restaurant chains we particularly need to focus on. I’ve had the MD of Burger King in and we had a very vigorous discussion and there’s been a couple of others as well. To be fair to them they have new people in charge and the R&D to them is something new. These are people who have come from other countries and they are not familiar with it there. They were very, very interested and when you tell them what their rivals are doing they become even more interested.

The Tragus chain came in (owner of Strada, Café Rouge and Bella Italia) and the attitude of their new chief executive - quite frankly I was absolutely blown away by him. He said it’s not about choice it’s about doing the right thing. I was astonished by his attitude. When you have that you don’t need to start naming and shaming.

A lot of attention when it comes to calorie reduction has focused on fizzy drinks but what about alcohol? We’ve looked at whether or not we should put the calorific content on drinks but the downside - and this is where you have to be extremely responsible - is that, as soon as you start to do that, spirits suddenly can be painted as a healthier alternative.

Are local voluntary bans on high-strength alcohol such as the one in Ipswich going to be the main thrust of government policy? It is really interesting, police and local authorities working together. That is the way forward and it’s absolutely the role of local government to do it. We I like the idea of local authorities through their local health responsibilities and their existing structure doing this work because believe councils and police know their issues more than anyone else. Good local authorities are already working with the police and working with the licensed trade. There are times when national government can play an important role and we should do but equally local government have the powers. They have always had the powers on licensing You could as a city or town determine the way of travel. My complaint is we don’t see the enforcement that we should. In Nottingham [close to my constituency] we’ve had huge problems with the drinking culture and we started to attract huge numbers of stag and hen partners because it became known as a place to come and get extremely drunk.

Towns need to look at the damage that is being done and take local action based on their own needs, but when you have top-down national stuff and treat everyone the same, that’s when you have problems because not everyone is the same and not all towns have the same problem. It’s always better when you take people with you rather than making organisations and individuals feel they are constantly being got at

Do you not think Scotland has got it right with a much more direct regulatory approach?
On alcohol yes because Scotland’s drinking culture is different to England. I lived in Scotland for several years and one of the most striking differences is their drinking culture is and on this one they are right to determine it themselves.