Special edition: Pricing social responsibility

Industry targeting misuse, not consumption in drink focus

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Alcohol Alcoholic beverage Portman group

In the final part of an ongoing series, BeverageDaily.com looks at the issue of pricing on alcoholic beverages amidst industry claims that more expensive products will not deter misuse.

As some politicians call for restrictions on pricing, brewers and retailers believe that using costs to curb alcohol abuse will prove a limited success.

Some health organisations and charities by contrast, have claimed that hitting consumers in their wallets would provide the most direct deterrent to alcohol abuse.

Root causes

Michael Thompson, head of communications for the industry-led, alcohol social responsibility body the Portman Group, said that under its mandate, the watchdog aims to target misuse of its members’ products and not general consumption.

Thompson told BeverageDaily.com that while research was ongoing into the impacts of alcohol price on behaviour, finding solutions to the issue was a complex task.

"We're not convinced that price is a major factor in contributing to the social problems of heavy alcohol consumption,"​ he stated. "In some countries in Northern Europe, where drink tend to be more expensive due to taxing, there are still problems in society with alcohol.”

Thompson claimed that it was too simplistic then to suggest that pricing alone was at the root of alcohol abuse, though he conceded that research into the exact impact of cheaper alcohol in consumer behaviour was ongoing.

Brewing responses

Rodolphe de Looz-Corswarem, secretary general of trade body, the Brewers of Europe agreed with the Portman Group’s claims that price alone would not provide a solution for cutting drink abuse.

He said the association favoured government initiatives on training and law enforcement as more vital steps towards battling drink concerns.

“It will not be because of price increases that people drink less,”​ de Looz-Corswarem said.

The Brewers of Europe accepted that different drinking laws in Europe meant that national authorities had individual responsibility at the end of the day to control drinking.

He claimed though that campaigns such as illegalising drinking and driving and restricting access of young people to alcohol had managed to travel around the bloc.

Retail level

This has not stopped member states from threatening to get tough on alcohol manufacturers and distributors though.

Taking the example of a single market, legislators in Scotland are looking at a number of restrictions on alcohol sales, particularly for off trade suppliers like supermarkets, from raising the dirking age to 21 and higher taxing on alcohol.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents a number of the country’s leading retailers, said that blaming the often-discounted pricing on alcohol offered by its members compared to pubs and bars for drink was unfounded.

A spokesperson for the group accepted though that while retailer pricing for alcohol products was related to many factors like taxes, competition and charges for transportation, manufacturers did play a role

“Sometimes, lower pricing may be supported by suppliers to support particular brands,”​ he stated. “However, suggestions that alcohol is being served at supermarkets at a loss is a myth, and has no logic​.”

The spokesperson claimed that anecdotally, most consumers who purchased alcohol from its members were often being responsibly as part of a wider weekly shop and added that it continued to uphold age restrictions on alcohol across the stores.

Price concerns

Not everyone believes that the industry’s arguments are a convincing justification to retain cheaper alcohol.

Don Shenker, chief executive of UK-based charity Alcohol Concern, said in July that industry claims of promoting responsible drinking are being undermined by some retail outlets selling cut-price alcohol and not upholding age limits.

The claims were made along with the publication of a report by the charity, calling 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).

Andrew McNeill, honorary secretary for the alcohol policy group Eurocare, also stressed 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 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 financial 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."

The first part of the series can be found here​.

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