From this week’s headlines from the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group’s (APPG) alcohol Misuse manifesto, you wouldn’t think that the overwhelming majority of adults in the UK drink responsibly. Nor would you know about the significant decline in harmful consumption, alcohol-related crime and drinking among young people that has been happening over the past decade. It seems we are neither willing nor able to recognise that some of the measures we’ve introduced to stop underage alcohol sales and cut harmful drinking are starting to work.
This may be why calls for population-wide controls, blanket bans and costly state regulation just don’t resonate with the vast majority. And, judging from the counter-reaction to some of the APPG and Public health England proposals this week, it seems people may have had enough.
A prime example is the call for statutory health warnings on alcohol similar to those on tobacco products. This fails to recognise not only that they are fundamentally different products, but also that great progress is being made on alcohol education. According to the Office for National Statistics, 90% of adults are aware of alcohol units and 75% now know about the lower-risk drinking guidelines.
“You wouldn’t think the majority of adults in the UK drink responsibly”
The next stage is to understand how that unit translates when you are pouring a drink for friends or ordering a pint at the bar, and we’re not going to achieve that by sticking a big warning label over the glass. That’s why drinks producers and retailers are key partners in promoting responsible drinking. We voluntarily pledged to feature health information on 80% of all products on shelf by 2013. This includes the lower-risk drinking guidelines, how many units are in the product and a reminder about not drinking while pregnant or trying to conceive. In July, the minister for public health confirmed that this target had been achieved. As an EU competency, any legislation on labelling would take years to come into force, but in the UK we are working in partnership with government to give consumers health information right now, so they can make informed choices.
Another case in point is a suggested ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports and other events for the protection of children. Government statistics show that the number of children trying alcohol has fallen significantly and is now lower than ever. And the voluntary measures that drinks retailers and producers have introduced to stop underage sales are clearly having an impact. Children are further protected by the strict codes of practice that regulate how alcohol is marketed, including a new code of practice for alcohol sponsorship. All of this has been achieved by voluntary action.
However, we all recognise that there is a long way to go. There are people and areas in the UK suffering disproportionate harms from alcohol and who will need help and support, like the targeted proposals for treatment and brief interventions that featured in the recent APPG manifesto. But let’s make sure we keep on doing the things that are working and recognise that we are heading in the right direction - towards a more responsible drinking culture.
Sarah Hanratty is deputy chief executive of the Portman Group