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15 June, 2007

Emma Eversham gets to the bottom of the national alcohol strategy

When the government's latest alcohol strategy was announced, the national media focused on its proposed clamp-down on "problem" middle-aged, middle class drinkers who may be enjoying more glasses of wine than is good for them. Indeed, the document, Safe, Sensible, Social - the Next Steps for the National Alcohol Strategy, does state that "slightly older drinkers who drink regularly, often at home" are as much of a problem for society as the young binge drinkers who cause havoc on city streets at weekends.

However, the spectre of health minister Caroline Flint marching into homes and snatching the Shiraz off the dinner table to stop drinkers going over their recommended daily units is in danger of overshadowing the rest of the strategy.

One of the messages coming from the Home Office and the Department of Health in their plan to improve our relationship with drink - an update of 2004's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy - is that it is our collective responsibility to deal with the problem.

Information campaigns

Under-age drinkers, binge drinkers aged 18-24 and the aforementioned older drinkers are all to be targeted through public information campaigns which the government hopes will cut the £20 billion it spends every year dealing with crime and damage to health caused by alcohol.

Drinks producers and retailers will also be expected to share the responsibility of spreading the sensible drinking message by including information on drinks labels, not selling alcohol to under-18s and not running irresponsible drinks promotions.

But perhaps one of the most important messages that has so far failed to be reported is that progress has been made in reducing alcohol harm in the UK over the past three years, and the industry can take some of the credit.

According to the government's records, the national test purchase failure rate fell from 50 per cent to 20 per cent between 2004 and 2006.

The report does not specify whether this is because more retailers are adopting the Challenge 21 scheme or for other reasons, but it should be seen as a positive step for the industry however it has been achieved.

The Social Responsibility Standards for the Production & Sale of Alcoholic Drinks, set up by mebers of the drinks industry, were also ­commended in the report for encouraging ­responsible ­practices. Underlining the strategy's ­positive message, Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the WSTA, said: "On the whole this ­revised strategy reflects the progress ­already being made in tackling alcohol misuse.

"The statistics included show that consumption levels are falling across the board: average weekly unit consumption is down; the percentage drinking more than the recommended daily number of units is down; and, perhaps most tellingly, Customs data shows a fall in overall consumption in 2005 and 2006.

"Importantly, the strategy recognises the central role that the alcoholic drinks industry has played by working in ­partnership with the government and other stakeholders on a range of issues, particularly our successes in reducing ­under-age sales through our Challenge 21 campaign and the establishment of the Drinkaware Trust."

The Association of Convenience Stores' chief executive James Lowman said the sector ha s made "major" steps forward in responsible alcohol retailing which led to the decline in failed test purchases . He is pleased the government believes that tackling under-age drinking is about more than targeting drinks retailers.

"Most under-18s who drink get alcohol from sources other than legal outlets . Therefore education of both under-18s and those who influence them is a vital part of the new strategy," he said.

While drinks retailers can engage in some back-slapping for making progress with test purchasing, they should take note that the government fully intends to involve the industry in future actions to improve people's attitudes towards ­alcohol.

Fuel for binge drinking?

Next April the D oH will lead an investigation into the relationship between alcohol promotions and irresponsible drinking.

The government says it wants to look at whether discounting and promotions could be fuelling binge drinking - a link for which there is currently no evidence, according to the WSTA's Beadles.

Nevertheless, the review is being encouraged by members of the drinks industry as long as it is completely independent and will not affect competition and consumer choice.

"The UK already has very high alcohol tax rates in comparison with other countries and I don't believe that consumers want politicians setting the price of a drink," said Beadles.

There will also be a review of the Social Responsibility Standards in an on going study by the government, which says in the strategy document it "believes that more can be done to ensure the ­visible and transparent implementation of these standards and that there are good arguments for independent monitoring to verify that standards actually have improved".

Sensible messages

Finally, we may see legislation introduced in the future which will mean that drinks companies will have to include sensible drinking messages - which are currently under a voluntary agreement - including unit information, on alcohol .

A public consultation will take place in November 2008 to determine ­whether the information should be required to be printed on labels.

However, if the industry continues to voluntarily include the necessary information or is seen to be positively communicating the sensible drinking message, there is unlikely to be a change.

Beadles said: "It's a reality that the industry was aware of and there is a recognition that the government has the power to bring in a law, but I can't see it bringing forward legislation if the industry does it voluntarily."

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