Last week I witnessed something quite unexpected. The health Select Committee report on the government’s alcohol Strategy took a broadly positive view of the Responsibility Deal. It stated that it “welcomed” the alcohol industry’s “willingness to address the harms that alcohol can cause”.
Yet the report left a bad taste. Because while the select committee analysed the strategy with an open mind, it seems to have buried its collective head in the sand with respect to the alcohol industry’s one billion unit pledge.
Back in March - unfortunately on the very same day the Alcohol Strategy was launched - 32 key suppliers and retailers pledged that, by the end of 2015, they will have taken one billion units of alcohol out of consumption through the promotion of lower alcohol products and the reduction in abv of current brands.
In my view, this was the most significant pledge to emerge from the Responsibility Deal. And yet the Health Select Committee dismissed it contemptuously, saying: “If the industry does not bring forward more substantial proposals than this it risks being seen as paying only lip service to the need to reduce the health harms caused by alcohol.”
As an industry we don’t expect or seek praise, but the implication that the pledge is only paying “lip service” is immensely frustrating and disappointing.
“Suppliers speaking for 80% of the alcohol sold in this country signed up”
The alcohol industry is not always that good at getting round the table together to produce constructive ideas to help government tackle social issues. Yet here, suppliers speaking for 80% of alcohol sold in this country signed up, with many companies making their own individual pledges. Accolade Wines, for example, pledged to take 25 million units from its Californian Rosé portfolio by 2015. There are other excellent examples across all channels.
One wonders if the Select Committee actually understands what the billion unit pledge represents. What is galling about its dismissive attitude is that the pledge actually tackles the challenge the committee chairman Stephen Dorrell MP set out when he launched the report, saying: “The health impact of chronic alcohol misuse is significant, and greater emphasis needs to be placed on addressing that.”
What is the one billion unit pledge aimed at, if not this? Perhaps the pledge is not enough for the committee, and many may say one billion units is not enough. However, it is equivalent to 2% of total unit consumption, which in a mature market like the UK is material and will have a significant impact.
Any abv reduction has to be done carefully and skilfully, especially with wine, which is essentially an agricultural product. We can’t just flick a switch to do it - we have to work with our winemakers and retain the loyalty of our customers.
Our hope is the pledge will, in time, be held up as an example of what can happen when industry works to support government policy - and that in future, groups of MPs that rightly hold businesses to account will be able to recognise meaningful initiatives when they see them.