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NGOs are seeking urgent talks with Public Health England over the future of the Responsibility Deal

NGOS today announced they were set for urgent talks with Public Health England over the future of public health policy and the role of the Responsibility Deal, as other charities and individuals threatened to follow this week’s walk-out by charity groups from the Deal.

Organisations including the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) and the UK Health Forum announced they were quitting the government’s Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network this week in protest at the government’s decision to drop minimum unit pricing (MUP).

“The government has raised huge question marks over its public health policy with its decisions over plain packaging and MUP”

Susan Osborne, Cancer Research UK

It emerged today the Faculty has also quit its place on the Food Network of the Deal, which oversees food issues and operates in parallel to the Alcohol Network. Meanwhile other groups said they were considering their positions ahead of the talks with Public Health England, the new body overseeing public health that was set up in April.

One member of the government’s core alcohol group, who asked not to be named, said he was considering his position. “I’m quite sure that the consensus of thinking among people who want to make a difference to alcohol harm is that these voluntary deals are almost completely worthless,” he said.

The Alcohol Network’s co-chair Nick Sheron, academic clinical hepatologist at University of Southampton, quit this week at the same time as the NGOs.

“The charities are absolutely right to pull out,” said one leading member of the Responsibility Deal Food Network. “They have decided that staying in is no longer in the best interests of public health and will instead be pushing for regulation. There are definitely question marks now over the whole future of the deal.”

Susan Osborne, communications director for Cancer Research UK, said the meeting with Public Health England would be crucial.

“It’s going to be very significant because the government has raised huge question marks over its public health policy with its decisions over plain packaging [for tobacco] and MUP,” she added.

Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), who is also taking part in the talks, said: “We’re going to be putting to Public Health England that the time has come to reasses the Responsibility Deal and the government’s public health policy.”

‘Political posturing’

However, one industry member of the alcohol core group attacked the NGOS for “political posturing”, adding: “They know full well that minimum pricing was never part of the Deal. This is all about manoeuvring to try to put more pressure on the government.”

CEO of the alcohol industry-funded Portman Group, Henry Ashworth, who is the remaining chair of the Alcohol Network following Sheron’s departure, said: “It is disappointing that FPH have chosen to walk out of the Responsibility Deal as it is through strong partnerships between government, industry and the public sector that we will improve public health.

“Alcohol producers have made significant voluntary pledges that will help foster a culture of responsible drinking and ensure local alcohol harms are dealt with through a targeted and co-ordinated approach. The drinks industry will continue to be willing and committed partners with government under the Responsibility Deal framework.”

Progress being made

The Responsibility Deal was set up by the government in 2011 with 170 signatories including retailers, suppliers and NGOs committing to voluntary pledges to make food and drink healthier.

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Alcohol pricing decision sparks walk-out by health groups

Independent health groups involved in steering discussions on government alcohol policy have walked out following the decision to ditch plans for minimum unit pricing.

Today the Department of Health issued a statement praising companies for making further progress towards the Responsibility Deal’s pledge to slash five billion calories from the UK diet.

Mars UK said it was on its way to reducing the calories in all its chocolate products to no more than 250 calories per portion.

Burton’s Biscuits, meanwhile, said changes to its formulations would result in an estimated national reduction of 700,000 kcals per day this year.

“By working with industry through the Responsibility Deal, we have already significantly reduced artificial trans-fat, calories and salt in foods, and set up consistent front-of-pack food labelling which all the major supermarkets and some big manufacturers have signed up to,” said public health minister Anna Soubry.

“But we are not complacent – I expect to see more companies signing up and delivering so we can get even bigger results.”

See this week’s issue of The Grocer for an exclusive interview with Anna Soubry.