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Responsibility deal under renewed pressure

Alcohol and health bodies criticise Diageo for funding programme warning of dangers of alcohol in pregnancy as part of the Deal, while Health Secretary suggests supermarkets might do more to help

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, has written to the leading supermarket companies, suggesting that they could do more to reduce aggressive alcohol marketing in their stores. The clear implication is that they are failing to take the Government’s Responsibility Deal seriously enough. At the same time, the alcohol and health organisations that decided to boycott the Responsibility Deal because of alcohol industry involvement, criticised Diageo for agreeing to fund an educational programme for midwives on the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy.

The Responsibility Deal is the name given to the Coalition government’s attempt to bring together the various industries whose products are relevant to health issues such as alcohol, obesity and physical fitness, with the health organisations. The idea is to persuade the commercial operators to sign up to the process of improving public health by doing useful things such as improved labelling of food and drink products. In pursuing this policy, the present government is, in fact, continuing an initiative begun under the previous Labour government, when it was known as the ‘Coalition for Better Health’. However, a number of alcohol and health bodies, including the Institute of Alcohol Studies and the BMA, decided to boycott the Responsibility Deal because they thought it gave the alcohol industry too much influence and was a diversion from ‘evidence-based’ alcohol policy (See Alcohol Alert Issue 1 Spring 2011)

Row over Diageo funding of alcohol and pregnancy programme

Controversy was caused by the announcement that Diageo had agreed to extend the funding of an education and training programme for midwives on the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The training programme is being run by the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK (Nofas-UK), the leading health charity in the UK that focuses on the issue. Susan Fleisher, the Chief Executive of the charity, said the programme would have huge benefits.

“The thing that’s so fantastic is that they’re helping us with prevention, we can actually prevent children being born with foetal alcohol brain damage”, she said. “But it costs money, and thanks to Diageo we expect we will be educating, in the next three years, 10,000 midwives. Ultimately, if it all goes well, we will reach at least a million women.”

Anne Milton, the Public Health Minister, supported the initiative. She said: “Midwives are one of the most trusted sources of information and advice for pregnant women. This pledge is a great example of how business can work with NHS staff to provide women with valuable information.”

However, Vivienne Nathanson from the British Medical Association said that there were concerns over the scheme and its funding by Diageo. She said:

“They certainly have a conflict of interest because it’s in the interest of the drinks industry for people to continue to drink and it’s in the interest of health for people to drink much less, and certainly not to drink during pregnancy, or to drink really minimally. I think the issue for us would be if money is given by the industry, it must be given to an honest broker, a third party.”

Other alcohol and health bodies joined Labour Party health spokesmen in opposing the plan, labeling it a ‘smokescreen’ and accusing the Conservatives of allowing corporations “further influence on public health policy.”

However, speaking to Alcohol Alert, Susan Fleisher explained that Diageo began funding the pilot training programme two years ago, which means it began under the Labour government. The pilot was regarded as a success, and all that has now happened is that Diageo has agreed to fund the programme for a further three years. The programme promotes Nofas-UK’s standard advice on alcohol and pregnancy, which is based on the official guidance from the Department of Health. This is that, ideally, women who are pregnant or contemplating becoming pregnant should not drink alcohol at all, but if they do they should restrict consumption to a minimum. The programme was reviewed by the Royal College of Midwives, and the International FASD Medical Advisory Panel.

Ms Fleisher also confirmed that Diageo have no influence over the content of the training programme, and that Diageo’s logo does not appear on the published material.

Criticism by the alcohol and health organisations

Commenting on the Nofas- UK programme, Don Shenker, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, one of the organisations boycotting the Responsibility Deal, said: “It is deeply worrying that alcohol education is being paid for by the drinks industry, as it is then unaccountable and not necessarily based on evidence or public health guidance.”

Labour’s health spokesperson John Healey said: “Industry sponsored initiatives should not be an excuse for stealth cuts to funding for public health campaigns.”

Professor Ian Gilmore, Chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, of which Nofas-UK was one of the founder organisations, none the less branded the initiative a ‘diversion’ and said, “To really make a difference, education and information must be backed-up by tougher action on the price, availability and marketing of alcohol.”

For the IAS, Katherine Brown said:

“It is unnerving to see money being accepted from the drinks industry to fund alcohol education programmes when there is a direct conflict of interest between its profits and public health objectives.

“In funding this initiative, Diageo may be seen as a ‘responsible’ producer but we must also be reminded that the organisation is an influential and active opponent of effective alcohol policies such as minimum pricing, licensing restrictions and raising the drink drive limit.

“Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder is an emotive subject, but so is domestic violence, sexual assault, homicide, homelessness, people dying from liver disease… all of which are exacerbated by the increased affordability and availability of alcohol.

“Evidence shows that this type of targeted activity is not an effective means of reducing levels of alcohol harm unless it is backed up by population-wide measures that tackle price, availability and promotion of alcohol.

“This PR initiative can be seen as a cynical distraction from the huge drink problem this country faces at present, and a worrying sign that government is hand in glove with industry.”

Supermarkets failing the Responsibility test?

It now seems that Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, may himself have started to become impatient with the progress of the Deal in regard to sections of the alcohol retail sector. Mr Lansley has written to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Morrisons, The Co-operative Group, Waitrose and Aldi, calling on them to do more to back the Deal, which was launched in March. The one exception was Asda, which, shortly after the strategy was announced, revealed it was removing front of store alcohol displays in its stores.

Interestingly, the letter was reported in the trade press as being a stiff rebuke to the recipients for not doing more. While the actual text of the letter reads more like friendly encouragement, (see full text) the implication between the lines is that the supermarkets are failing to do enough, quickly enough. This impression was confirmed by the briefings given to the media. The Department of Health told The Grocer magazine there was “increasing frustration from ministers” that major retailers had failed to take sufficient voluntary action on the back of its strategy to tackle obesity and alcohol abuse. Speaking to The Grocer, a spokeswoman at the Department of Health said that there was “increasing frustration from ministers that other supermarkets aren’t getting on board with similar pledges. I’d imagine Asda is not all that happy about being the lone commercial ranger either”.

She said Mr Lansley would also be writing to Asda “thanking them for their efforts”.

A spokesman for Asda said: “In April we made a decision that we would take the lead because we thought it was the right thing to do. For us it was the next step in a package of measures we began a couple of years ago when we began looking at one or two issues around the way alcohol was sold and displayed. We will stay close to the Government on this issue”.

The British Retail Consortium said it was perplexed by the Government’s attack.

A spokesman said: “This is a surprise. All the major retailers are actively pursuing the pledges they agreed with the Government in the Public Health Responsibility Deal. They deserve credit for providing customers with unit labelling, preventing underage sales of alcohol and funding the Drinkaware campaign exactly as they said they would”.

For the IAS, Katherine Brown took a different view. She said: “This latest stage of the Responsibility Deal debacle comes as no surprise and is exactly why we refused to sign up in the fi rst place. Relying on industry to adhere to voluntary pledges that could threaten their bottom line is never going to work. The Government knows this; it has commissioned reports that show the failings of self-regulation and seen evidence from the Health Select Committee.

“Tackling cheap booze in supermarkets should be a key priority for this Government if it is serious about reducing alcohol harm. This can only be achieved through increased regulation that demands industry compliance; voluntary agreements are not the answer to the nation’s alcohol problem.

“We don’t have time to waste saying ‘I told you so’, we need the Government to act now and produce a robust national alcohol strategy based on evidence of what works.”