Commons health select committee warns drinks firms to do more to tackle the damage to health that their products cause
Tough curbs on alcohol advertising and a possible ban on drinks companies sponsoring sporting and cultural events are needed to reduce the 6,500 deaths a year caused by drinking, MPs say today.
The Commons health select committee also warns drinks firms to do more to tackle the damage their products cause or risk being seen as “paying only lip service” to the need to reduce the “insidious and pervasive” health effects linked to drinking too much, which cost the NHS more than £3bn a year.
Existing restrictions on TV advertising should be applied more widely, especially in cinemas, to stop ads encouraging under-18s to drink, the cross-party group of MPs recommends in a review of the coalition’s alcohol strategy.
They say “serious consideration” should be given to reducing to 10% the proportion of a film’s audience that can be under-18 and still allow alcohol to be advertised, or to prohibiting alcohol advertising in cinemas altogether except when a film has an 18 certificate.
The report tells the industry it needs to behave more responsibly and criticises spokespeople who “often appear to argue that advertising messages have no effect on public attitudes to alcohol or on consumption. We believe this argument is implausible.”
It adds: “Those involved in advertising alcoholic products should accept that their advertisements contain positive messages about their products and that these messages are supported by considerable economic power.”
If ads did not work, shareholders would not sanction spending on them. As such “it is important that the alcohol industry ensures that its advertisements comply in all respects with the principles of corporate social responsibility”, they say.
The MPs welcome the industry’s willingness to address alcohol-related harm, especially through health secretary Andrew Lansley’s “responsibility deal” under which drink and food firms pledge to tackle alcohol misuse and obesity in return for avoiding any new regulation.
But producers “aren’t entitled to brownie points” for their involvement, said Stephen Dorrell, the committee’s chairman and former health secretary under John Major.
“It’s simply part of the responsibility of being in a free society: as members of a free society and selling the produce they should be interested in the fact that six and a half thousand deaths a year are related to alcohol consumption, and should be doing something to bring those deaths down. They have to accept responsibility for the trade they carry on,” he said.
Ministers should undertake a “serious examination” of the possibility of introducing a version of the Loi Évin, passed in France in 1991, which bans alcohol advertising on TV and in cinemas, and stops drinks producers from sponsoring cultural or sporting events. Such a move would stop the industry from associating itself with football and rugby teams and competitions, such as the Carling Cup and Guinness Premiership rugby.
The MPs want Public Health England, the new government agency, to commission a study of the law’s impact on public health in France, and also an independent evaluation of the responsibility deal.
The MPs welcomed the government’s embrace of minimum unit pricing of alcohol, a move backed by many medical bodies. The fact that Scotland is doing the same and setting the price there at 50p a unit means “practical arguments” favour the same price in England in order to deter a cross-border drinks trade. But evidence does not support the coalition’s proposed ban on alcohol multibuys and such a move would risk antagonising the vast majority of people who drink responsibly, the MPs say.
The British Medical Association backed the idea of a UK equivalent of the Loi Évin as part of a crackdown on alcohol advertising. “In Britain alcohol is associated through advertising with social success, often implied sexual success and often also with sporting success, through sponsorship. That’s the link we have to break”, said Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s director of professional activities. Improved labelling and shorter licensing hours were also needed, she added.
Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians’ adviser on alcohol, welcomed the possible adoption of measures such as those in the loi Évin but said more action was needed to “tackle the growing problem of marketing through digital, online and social media, to reduce children and young people’s exposure”.
However, Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the industry-funded Portman Group, denied drink ads are irresponsible. “It is entirely prohibited for alcohol to be marketed or targeted at under 18s and this is strictly enforced through industry codes of practice,” he said. It was “deeply disappointing” that the committee had not recognised the value of the industry’s pledge to remove 1bn of the 54bn units of alcohol sold every year by introducing more lower-strength wines and beers by 2015, he added.
The Advertising Association also rejected the MPs’ concerns. “The committee’s call for ad restrictions doesn’t add up. We already know the suggested measures don’t work. Eight years after its introduction, the French parliament and anti-alcohol campaigners labelled the loi Évin ‘ineffective’ and ‘weak’ in reducing high-risk drinking,” it said in a statement.
“Strong UK regulation already demands that advertising avoids appealing to under-18s and our exposure rules are strict and effective. Of course problems remain, but government figures show consumption, harmful drinking and binge-drinking are all in decline. People in ads only ever drink responsibly, more of us are following their lead”, it added.