Since being hauled before the prime minister for a bit of a kicking at the end of last year, the supermarkets have been working on proposals to help solve Britain's binge-drinking problem.
Over the past two weeks, Tesco and Asda have unveiled comprehensive plans to address the issue and the antisocial behaviour and health-related problems that go with it (see right).
Their reasons aren't entirely altruistic - both are attempting pre-emptive strikes ahead of potentially onerous legislation. Gordon Brown has made it a personal mission to reduce drink-fuelled crime and a major report on price and promotions by the Department of Health, due out in the early summer, could result in a ban on cheap alcohol if a link with binge drinking is established.
Andy Bond argues there is no need for legislation."We believe our proposals can be easily adopted by the entire retail industry immediately, and will go a long way towards tackling the issue of underage drinking and the effects of alcohol-related crime and anti-social behaviour, without the need for further legislation or delay," says the Asda chief executive.
Despite national press reports to the contrary, Tesco is also against a legislative ban on promotions on alcohol, as it claims this would penalise the majority of consumers who drink responsibly for the actions of a minority.
However, it does want the link between low-price alcohol and antisocial behaviour to be more thoroughly debated.
"Binge drinking and other alcohol-related social problems are a serious concern to us all, but it is far too simplistic to apportion responsibility on price alone," said Tesco executive director for corporate and legal affairs Lucy Neville-Rolfe. "Supermarkets do sell a lot of alcohol and we accept that we have a role to play in addressing the problem of antisocial drinking, but we need to better understand the impact of price."
Though Tesco was one of a number of retailers that this week agreed to stop selling super- strength lager and cider in problem zones in Westminster, Neville-Rolfe says Clubcard data provides no evidence to show alcohol promotions lead to an increase in alcohol consumption.
Her argument is substantiated by a recent report from the Irish Competition Authority, which concluded that a ban on below-cost alcohol sales would not curb binge drinking, and would only end up lining the pockets of the supermarkets.
Diageo takes a similar view, but says this doesn't preclude a review of the way alcohol is promoted. "There is no evidence to suggest a direct correlation between price, promotion and alcohol harm, but there is a perception that it plays a part and this needs to be addressed," says Diageo GB's head of social responsibility Kate Blakeley. "Promotions must be run responsibly and consumers must be given the right information about alcohol units and sensible drinking to make informed choices."
Sainsbury's and Morrisons are also working up their responsible drinking policies. Sainsbury's says it removed 'shooters' from sale a couple of years ago and is heavily involved in the national Think 21 proof of age scheme. It adds that it has already introduced the Department of Health alcohol labelling scheme, which requires all alcohol to be labelled with unit information by the end of the year.
Morrisons, which also runs Think 21 and has begun the roll-out of the DoH label, agrees with Tesco that the time has come for a government-led debate on the issue. "We would encourage further discussions to create a 'safe environment' in which all retailers and manufacturers could collectively begin to address all of the concerns relating to antisocial drinking and not just focus on any one element of the problem in a bid to look for long-term solutions," it says.
Despite these measures, the FWD continues to call for a ban on below-cost selling. "It is one of the major causes of the binge-drinking culture," claims its director general, John Murphy. "We have called on the government to introduce a voluntary code to stop retailers, wholesalers and the off-trade selling alcohol below cost as it is an easy way to stem a large part of the problem."
The Scottish government has already committed to a ban on cut-price alcohol - the delayed proposals are due out in the spring.
Whether the supermarkets' anti-binge drinking strategies are enough to stop them landing in the drink over booze promotions elsewhere remains to be seen.Booze control
Asda and Tesco have unveiled broad measures to address Britain's booze culture:
• Will stop selling alcohol between midnight and 6am at 100 town centre stores
• Will extend the Challenge 25 proof of age scheme to 100 more stores
• Will double the number of independent test purchases
• May prosecute under-18s who illegally attempt to purchase for breaking the law
• Has removed high alcohol fruit-flavoured shot-sized 'shooters' from sale
• Has invested £1m in targeted youth projects aimed at reducing underage alcohol consumption
• Has told the government it is willing to take an active role in discussions about responsible pricing on alcohol
•Has introduced the Think 21 proof of age scheme
• Will introduce the new Department of Health alcohol label on all own-label alcohol
• Is considering a new "responsible approach" to licensing hours, which would include not seeking licences in alcohol disorder zones
• With Diageo, will provide customer information about responsible drinking
• May back campaign calling for one in six alcohol adverts to be on responsible drinking