In a BMJ investigative piece published today, freelance journalist Jonathan Gornall claims that politicians ignored strong health evidence in favor of protecting industry interests, which led them to ditch minimum unit pricing (MUP) on July 17 2013 in favor of banning the sale of alcohol below cost price.
The remaining public health representatives on the government’s Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (Cancer Research UK, Faculty of Public Health and the UK Health Forum) left the body on the same day.
‘It’s about doing the right thing’ – David Cameron
Thus, an apparently solid commitment to MUP from the UK government when it published its alcohol strategy in March 2012 was publicly abandoned, despite initial support from PM David Cameron.
“The responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing,” Cameron wrote in March, adding that the sole issue to discuss was price per unit.
If it were 40p per unit (65 cents) the PM wrote, that could mean “50,000 fewer crimes…and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade”.
The Downing Street press office continues to maintain images on Flickr, uploaded in March 2012 (see left and below) showing the impact of MUP on end product pricing, and captioning one in the imperative mood, suggesting that MUP was considered a done deal.
The Home Office’s subsequent consultation on the alcohol strategy was launched in November 2012, and listed a commitment to MUP, with the only question seemingly up for debate that of MUP levels.
But professing to unveil what he says is a “cautionary tale about the ability of the alcohol industry to influence public health policy”, Gornall notes its value to the UK economy and the “extraordinary access” of companies and industry groups to MPs and government departments.
Tory MP attacks ‘shameful’ MUP decision
He quotes Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston (a former doctor and campaigner for MUP) attacking the UK’s “shameful” UK decision to scrap minimum unit pricing, and suggests Cameron may have ditched a politically contentious issue prior to the 2015 general election.
Criticizing an “open door for industry” in Westminster, Wollaston – who confronted Cameron in parliament in March 2013 when it was rumored the government might abandon the policy – said that she was denied access to the PM to put the case for MUP, with meetings cancelled or requests for them ignored.
Much of the evidence for MUP came from the University of Sheffield’s alcohol research department, Gornell said, but he insists a lobbying offensive against its research was led by right-wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute, then the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA).
A public health researcher at Sheffield, John Holmes, complained: “We can’t really change the narrative in any way…but bodies such as the Adam Smith Institute have this public megaphone which is disproportionate to the scientific merits of what they’re saying.”
Drinks giants have ‘cosy access’ to MPs?
Gornell said the industry’s “cosy access” to MPs stems from four powerful all-party parliamentary groups representing the interests of beer (circa. 400 MP members) wine, spirits and cider.
In the 12 months to October 2013 – while the government was making its U-turn on MUP – the group received £40,209 in corporate membership fees from the likes of Heineken, Diageo, Molson Coors and AB InBev.
Sheffield’s Holmes told Gornell that such groups allow industry actors to “talk to a lot of MPs in a way that just wouldn’t be available to any public health group”.
The BMJ article also decries big retail influence on the UK government, noting that ASDA CEO Andy Clarke “saw fit” to make his case to health secretary Jeremy Hunt on May 15 despite the government’s then public commitment to the policy, two months after the consultation on MUP ended in April 2013.
“More surprisingly, perhaps, Hunt saw fit to allow him to do so. The emails also reveal that a similar meeting was held with Tesco on June 12," Gornell said.
Glossing the contents of a briefing note given to Hunt on May 10, prior to the meeting, Gornall writes: “Then came a passage which seems to indicate that the government’s consultation had been a sham. ‘Asda are opposed to MUP,’ continued the briefing.“‘Hunt’s line should be: ‘Government still considering the issue. Could be open to alternative proposals from industry. Welcome Asda’s views on this.’”
WSTA hits back at ‘one-sided view’
Miles Beale, CEO of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), said in a comment on the BMJ article sent to BeverageDaily.com this morning: “This is a fundamentally flawed report, which provides a one-sided view of the minimum unit pricing debate.
“Given the lack of evidence to show that minimum unit pricing would effectively tackle alcohol misuse the government was right not to introduce the policy,” he added.
Beale said it was “entirely appropriate” that businesses and trade associations talked to government to engage constructively with programs like the public health Responsibility Deal.
“That is why the WSTA and our members meet regularly with a number of government departments on a range of diverse issues such as product labelling, fraud prevention, trade, licensing issues and the development of evidence based policies to tackle alcohol misuse,” he said.
Title: ‘Alcohol and Public Health: Under the Influence’
Author: Jonathan Gornall
Source: British Medical Journal (BMJ), Published online January 8 2014,doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7646