Voice of reason: Dave Roberts of the Alcohol Information Partnership
Within hours of the announcement that Dave Roberts was to head a new industry-backed initiative to counter the claims of the anti-alcohol lobby, he had already stirred controversy. Not because of anything he’d done or said, but because he shares a rather common name with the chief executive of Alcohol Research UK.
Certain people were quick to get on the phone to ARUK, which meticulously guards its non-partisan reputation, to enquire whether it had sold out.
The director general of the new Alcohol Information Partnership (AIP) is mildly amused by the mix-up. “I’d like to meet the other Dave Roberts,” he says, though who knows what confusion that might cause.
For someone who’s just ventured on to a battlefield, Roberts is remarkably relaxed and cheerful, one of those amiable people who, five seconds after you meet them, you feel you’ve known for ages.
Yet he’s new to alcohol. For the first 10 years of his working life he was a stage manager at various theatres. “But I was always interested in politics,” he says. His political education came from a degree at Southampton University, from the Workers’ Educational Association, the Open University and Ruskin College.
The latter is an establishment that has produced many Labour politicians, and at one point it looked like Roberts was going to join them. He stood for parliament twice and lost heavily both times – a combination, he says, of unwinnable seats and perhaps a subconscious reluctance on his part to pursue high office.
“The problem was I don’t think I really wanted to win. I loved the campaigning, but politicians don’t live a healthy life. Everyone wants a piece of you.” Health was his “thing”, however, and he became a healthcare lobbyist around parliament, working for a variety of clients. For a spell he also worked for the Labour Party in its press office, and in 2010 he organised Ed Balls’ campaign to be Labour leader.
Most recently he was chief executive of the National Clinical Homecare Association, representing the interests of private providers within the NHS.
While there he was approached by the eight drinks companies behind AIP to lead the new body, an opportunity he seized enthusiastically.
He describes it as “the perfect union”. “I’d followed the alcohol debate for a long time and I don’t like it when arguments are so one-sided.”
The “Dave Roberts” confusion might have given him an inkling of the entrenched positions he’ll be facing, the kind of minefields he’ll have to negotiate. But his approachable demeanour alone suggests a fresh approach to the drink question, one less concerned about digging trenches than finding common ground.
“We’re not a trade body,” he insists. “There are some out there who think this is about winning, but it’s not about winners and losers, it’s about having a sensible debate.
“I’m not going into battle with public health. I’ve got a huge respect for public health. I used to work with them and they do a wonderful job in a difficult environment. They’re generally doing their best to give us better lives. But sometimes arguments become polarised – and that’s especially true in the alcohol debate.”
For Roberts, “public health and the anti-alcohol lobby are two different things”. He continues: “Anti-alcohol is ideological – a small number of people who have had a big impact and become very influential, even though they’ve got little public support.
“They are organised globally and they are better resourced than I am,” he laughs. “They’re not representative of the health services. They are the new puritans and they’re trying to change our national culture.”
It’s evident that Roberts, “an absolutely average drinker”, as he puts it, feels personally aggrieved by attacks on the lifestyle he shares with most of the population.
“You hear we’re all going to hell in a handcart, but the data tells us the opposite. It’s already irritating me. We’re just having fun. It’s a normal thing to do. It’s a part of life. We’re not all out drinking till we fall over.
“If you drink excessively you will harm yourself, but the flipside to that is most of us drink sensibly within a 1% lifetime risk, and 1% is as low as it gets for anything.
“I ride horses, and on a horse I know I’m in a risky environment. I take precautions and I know what I’m doing. There’s no such risk in drinking moderately in any real-world scenario.
“The impact of heavy alcohol consumption can be devastating, of course. People with drink problems need good support, and that’s where the effort should be put. We need to direct resources at harm. But here we have attempts to change health strategy away from that.
“Why should government resources be spent on making the responsible drinker drink less at a time when there are cuts in alcohol services and public health budgets are squeezed? That’s just wrong.”
Alongside treatment, attention should be paid, he believes, to measures that are already having an effect, in particular the partnership schemes the industry is involved in, such as Community Alcohol Partnerships.
“We are seeing positive changes in the reduction of alcohol consumption among young people – positive changes in all directions, in fact. It’s hard to determine exactly what did what, but we can learn from what’s happened and support that, try to understand what works and do more of it rather than do something different.
“For instance, different parts of the country have their own local, regional problems and we need an appropriate response, and that’s what CAPs have provided.”
Then there are the benefits of moderate social drinking, which Roberts believes those who care about our health should and can take on board.
“Public health wants to see people leading rewarding lives and we’re doing that when we go out for a beer, when we engage with a community in a pub or restaurant. Alcohol is an important part of that, and the research into those benefits is there.”
It’s early days, but AIP’s first foray into the field – turning findings from the British Social Attitudes Survey report on Attitudes to Alcohol against moves to increase pricing – is a good example of what we might expect (see box).
It will also be reacting to misleading reports in the media. “As a society, we should continue to have a rigorous debate about how best we continue to tackle and reduce alcohol misuse,” says Roberts. “The problem is that debate has become increasingly imbalanced and characterised by poor representation of the evidence. It’s not the research that’s wrong, it’s the interpretation. The facts are dramatised or exaggerated in order to scare people and skew the debate.
“We could analyse the research ourselves, but that’s an academic process and then it’s three months later. So we’ll take a view on whether it’s balanced, not scaremongering, and in context.
“The drink debate is a living thing and we’ll be reacting to what’s being said, and back what we say with accurate evidence based in the real world. My priority is to bring balance back to the debate, to speak up for the majority.
“There are no plans for our own research,” he adds. “We don’t need to do that because the research is already out there. It’s being done by other people. We don’t have to create the evidence.
“This is about balancing the debate, bringing an end to the polarisation and finding the middle ground. Drinks companies by themselves might do that, but I believe a collective endeavour is always stronger.”
The Alcohol Information Partnership was launched, with a staff of two, in September by seven leading drinks companies: Diageo GB, Pernod Ricard UK, Campari, Bacardi Brown-Forman, Rémy-Cointreau, Moët Hennessy and Beam Suntory.
Its brief is to ensure the debate around alcohol in the UK remains balanced, by pointing out the evidence that binge-drinking is in decline, particularly among young people; that under-age drinking is reducing; and that long-term harmful drinking is also falling.
AIP will also promote the current partnership approach taken to tackle alcohol misuse through coordinated action between government, industry, local authorities and NGOs, focusing on education, enforcement and targeted initiatives.
MINIMUM UNIT PRICING
AIP’s first engagement in the alcohol debate picked up on Public Health England’s Social Attitudes Survey on Attitudes to Alcohol, which suggested that 65% of drinkers are not prevented from buying a drink by the price.
“It demonstrates that the idea of increasing the price of alcohol as a means to reduce harmful drinking is seen as unfair on sensible drinkers and is unlikely to be effective,” said Roberts.
“Sensible drinkers in Britain have truthfully stated that the price of a drink does not determine the amount they drink.”
And although advocates of Minimum Unit Pricing argue that it’s a policy targeted at heavier drinkers, AIP was able to point to the survey’s finding that “increasing risk drinkers” are “the least likely to think that MUP will reduce heavy drinking”.
Most respondents also believed that such a policy would be unfair on sensible drinkers.