Industry must fight government's "aggressive" minimum unit pricing tactics

The alcohol industry must work together to mount a defence against minimum unit pricing in the face of aggressive government tactics, according to the chief executive of the WSTA.

“We need to think about how we might mount a defence to something that is definitely not a foregone conclusion,” said Miles Beale, a former Parliamentary Secretary to John Prescott who joined in June this year.

“Minimum unit pricing is our biggest challenge. I don’t think we can rely on a legal defence.

“It is an intensely political issue.

“The government is flip-flopping: they want to work with us, then they want to do things to us.

“There is an opportunity to solve some of the problems that the government highlights, but do it in a why that bolsters the industry’s public perception.

“We need to look at what other things we are proposing that look like credible alternatives.

“It’s very easy if you are in the healthy lobby to say how bad alcohol is for you, but it’s much harder for the industry to push a narrative based on the jobs and economic growth it provides.

“These are vital in the current climate, but it’s a harder sell.

“We need to influence the agenda. If we can we should lead and not follow.

“We need to make sure that through the Portman Group we can offer an alternative.

“We need to show the industry being responsible.

“We need to maintain the agenda and make clear that the WSTA is a force to be reckoned with.”

Beale pointed to the government’s “carrot and stick approach” to dealing with the alcohol industry.

“The Responsibility Deal came into place when the carrot was dangled,” said Beale, who was addressing his first WSTA conference at the BAFTA building in London.

“However, an alcohol strategy including minimum unit pricing as a proposal looks like a pretty aggressive change of tactics.

“We should pause and say we were perfectly happy to respond to the carrot but they bring out the biggest stick available then our cooperative should pause and reconsider.”

He said minimum unit pricing is a vital battle as it is the “thin end of the wedge”. 

“If you start at 40p as a minimum unit price, where do you go next?” he said.

“If you start with alcohol, do you then go with a sugar and fat tax?

“If minimum unit pricing goes ahead, the next thing the government will look at is taxation.

“If it doesn’t go ahead, the next thing the government will look at is taxation.

“Minimum unit pricing is a key battle in and of itself but also it is the thin end of the wedge.

“The outcome will affect the pace and scope of future government reforms.”

Leading industry figures backed Mr Beale’s stance.

Alison Levett, chief executive of Entoria, said: “It is an unproven and blunt instrument to deal with issues around binge drinking.

“I don’t think the public knows or understands enough about it.

“We need to lead the discussion and open consumers eyes as to what makes up the price of a bottle of wine, how much goes on tax.”

Denis O’Flynn, managing director of Pernod Ricard UK, added: “I believe it is a crude and blunt tool.

"Commentary about it says it will not affect the majority of the market, but at a 50p minimum unit price, 85% of the products in shops would be affected.

“If you have a differentiation in minimum unit price between England, Scotland and Wales, shoppers will just move left and right.”

He drew laughs when he said: “Maybe we should all just invest in Berwick upon Tweed.”

When challenged by a member of Drinkaware in the audience on how, if not through minumum unit pricing, Britain can combat binge drinking, O’Flynn said: “I would be a strong believer in choice. Education and personal responsibility.

“We can all do more as an industry and through Drinkaware to make sure the negative aspects of binge drinking are understood.

I don’t believe that heavy-handed regulation is the way to go.”

Levett added: “We need to drive a social and cultural revolution. Education should be the overriding strategy to pursue.”

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