UK Government needs rethink of drink rules, says charity

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Alcohol, Alcohol abuse, Alcoholic beverage, Portman group

The self-regulation of alcohol sales and promotion has come under new criticism by a leading alcohol charity within the UK, which claims that current licensing laws at pubs and bars are failing to prevent alcohol abuse in the country.

Alcohol Concern claims that the voluntary code of practice for on-trade establishments including nightclubs has been let down by 'poor industry practice' and should be replaced by new government regulation requiring harm reduction policies as well as a new independent watchdog.

Publication of the report, which was compiled by the charity itself, will come as a blow to the alcohol industry, particularly in the UK, which this year was commended for its industry-led sustainability initiatives regarding reducing alcohol abuse.

Healthy scepticism

Nonetheless, some health experts remain sceptical over the success of measures from both retailers and manufacturers, with the latest findings likely to add to calls for tighter restrictions on drink groups regarding sales of their products.

While looking at the current market place, Alcohol Concern chief executive, Don Shenker, said that the industry's claims of promoting responsible drinking amongst consumers is undermined by some outlets selling cut-price alcohol and not upholding age limits.

New proposals

The report identifies a number of areas it believes should be considered by the UK government as part of any potential overhaul.

In terms of the recommendations, Alcohol Concern calls for a new independent watchdog body operated with the support of more than one government department, as is the case with the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Besides encouraging industry-wide standards for the sales of alcohol, the charity also called for the possibility of using sanctions to back up its work.

Before the implementation of such a watchdog, the report suggests forming a national alcohol enforcement group consisting of Home Office and local government representatives among others to carry out short-term support for licensing rules.

"Self-regulation has clearly failed and we desperately need mandatory codes and an industry watchdog to stamp out the poor practice and the complacency that is characteristic of many of these venues,"​ Shenker stated. "Only these measures can safeguard the public and cut down the alcohol-related violence that makes life a misery for so many."

Other proposals by the group include making retailers detail harm reduction measures as part of their license application, while also encouraging local pressure groups to be formed among councils to raise awareness of regional issues.

Report findings

In the study, the group said that despite official UK figures confirming a 10 to 15 per cent minority of alcohol retailers selling products to underage consumers, only 0.5 per cent of license holders were being reviewed under the 2003 license act.

Furthermore, 43 per cent of managed pubs were found to have no procedures for staff found to contravene under-age sales laws despite trade association calls for such measures, according to the report.

Andrew McNeill, honorary secretary for the alcohol policy group Eurocare, told earlier this year about wider concerns amongst some health groups over current regulation within the alcohol industry, which reflect some of the findings of the report.

Despite the work of some industry-led responsibility initiatives like the UK-based Portman group, which limits what imagery and messages can be used in drink advertising, McNeill believes there is doubt whether the industry can effectively have a role in its own regulation."One difficulty for the industry is that it is hard to persuade health care groups that it will voluntarily work to its own detriment,"​ he said.

Ongoing debate

McNeill added that debate over the effectiveness of industry led responsible messages and self-regulation was likely to rage on as a key issue of the European Commission's (EC) Alcohol Health Forum.

"Certainly in the UK, advertising is a major problem related to alcohol policy,"​ McNeill stated. "Too often, the only issue under discussion is how alcohol content is represented, with more of a focus on volume issues needed."

According to Eurocare, the rising use of new online media is also contributing to the problem, with the group claiming that a simple on-line search is likely to provide a number of examples of irresponsible drink promotions.

"Initiatives like those of the Portman group are doing useful things in the industry,"​ he said. "But one has to ask if they would be doing this without pressure from public health lobbies."

Future action

Recent findings conducted by ELSA, an EC co-financed project studying alcohol marketing regulation, suggested there was currently contradictory opinion on the effectiveness of industry to government or scientist-led regulation.

"The results indicate the need for a more structured and EU-wide monitoring and evaluation approach to alcohol marketing," ​the report stated.

Eurocare itself said it was considering commissioning possible studies into how self-regulation policies currently used in the bloc work, in a bid to better grasp the true effectiveness of such measures.

Self regulatory successes

Despite the criticisms levelled at current alcohol policy, on an international basis, some self-regulatory policy in terms of the sale and promotion of alcohol has received some support.

In May this year, the Portman Group said its code of practice has been named in the '50 Best' campaigns for alcohol harm reduction by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), a development likely to strengthen support for continued industry involvement in ad regulation.

David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, said that the recognition of its code of practice reflected the initiative's success in addressing European concerns over alcohol abuse.

"We are mindful of the importance of securing widespread support for our code and independent complaints process from a diverse range of stakeholders,"​ he stated. "This recognition suggests we are striking the right balance by protecting the public from irresponsible marketing while allowing companies reasonable commercial freedoms."

The Portman Group

The group's code calls on drink makers not to market their products at consumers under 18 years of age, while also encouraging them not to promote rapid or heavy consumption of the product through use of sexual imagery or bravado.

Under the guidelines, packaging must also not use its alcoholic content as a dominant part of it packaging, or suggest that the product may improve a consumers mental or physical capabilities.

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