Health groups reject 'responsibility deal' on alcohol

Bottles Some groups claim the government is too close to the drinks industry

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Six leading health groups have dealt the government a blow by refusing to sign up to its new "responsibility deal" on alcohol in England.

The deal covers voluntary agreements with the drinks industry on issues such as promotions and labelling, aimed at tackling alcohol abuse.

But the organisations, including Alcohol Concern, accused ministers of not being tough enough on the industry.

The government said the deal was just one strand of its public health policy.

The groups, which also include the Royal College of Physicians and the British Liver Trust, were asked to sign up to the alcohol part of the deal to show a united front between industry, health and government.

As well as alcohol there are separate workstreams on other issues, such as food and physical activity.

The full details of the responsibility deal have yet to be unveiled, with an announcement expected this week, but under it, the drinks industry would be expected to sign up to a number of alcohol pledges.

'Lack of clarity'

These reportedly include ensuring 80% of products on the shelf are labelled for unit content, raising awareness of the unit content of drinks in pubs and clubs and taking action to reduce under-age drinking.

There would also be a pledge to commit to action on advertising and marketing by promoting responsible drinking and keeping alcohol adverts away from schools.

The health groups said they had lost confidence with the approach because of the lack of clarity over what would happen if industry did not meet the commitments.

They said the pledges were neither specific nor measurable, they lacked scope and there was no evidence they would even work.

They also said there was not enough being done to make alcohol less affordable and said the drinks industry had used the process to dictate government policy.

Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: "It's all carrot and no stick for the drinks industry and supermarkets.

"By allowing the drinks industry to propose such half-hearted pledges on alcohol with no teeth, this government has clearly shown that, when it comes to public health, its first priority is to side with big business and protect private profit."

Beer tax

Professor Vivienne Nathanson, of the British Medical Association, another of the groups which have pulled out of signing up to the deal, added: "The government has talked the talk, but when it comes to taking tough action that will achieve results, it falls short."

Shadow health secretary John Healey said the move was a "damning criticism" of the government's policy.

But Health Secretary Andrew Lansley rejected the criticism, saying progress was being made and tough action was being taken where necessary.

He pointed to the recent announcements about plans for a new tax on super-strength beers and a ban on below-cost alcohol, whereby drinks are so heavily discounted they are sold for less than the tax paid on them.

However, he added: "We have made clear from the start that the responsibility deal is just one strand of the government's public health policy. It explicitly excludes cost and price competition to avoid conflicts of interest."

The full list of organisations which are refusing to sign up is: Alcohol Concern, the British Association for the Study of the Liver, the British Liver Trust, the British Medical Association, the Institute of Alcohol Studies and the Royal College of Physicians.

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