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Drinks indusry dismisses MPs claims it is "dependent" on heavy drinkers

Published:  08 January, 2010

The drinks industry has refuted allegations from a government select committee that it is "dependent" on heavy drinkers and holds too much sway over government alcohol policy.

In a hard-hitting report, the Commons health committee said the drinks industry and supermarkets hold more power over the government than
health experts and called for a minimum price for alcohol, a rise in duty on spirits back to 1980s levels and much tighter regulations.

But Gordon Brown has already dismissed the idea of minimum
pricing when it was suggested last year by Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief
Medical Officer, saying it would unfairly hit the majority who are moderate drinkers.

But the report dismissed this as "a myth widely propagated by
parts of the drinks industry."

In spite of its claims to the contrary, the drinks industry
is "dependent on harmful and hazardous drinkers" who account for three-quarters of its sales, the committee claimed. If everyone drank responsibly, sales would be 40% lower, it said.

The average moderate drinker would pay just 11 pence more
per week for their alcohol if a minimum price of 40 pence per unit was set, the report said.

"In formulating its alcohol strategy the government
must be more sceptical about the industry's claims that it is in favour of
responsible drinking."

Kevin Barron, chairman of the committee, said while ministers had ignored earlier calls for minimum pricing, the same had happened
in the past with the ban on tobacco advertising and smoking in public places,
but both had been accepted eventually.

He envisaged the same for minimum pricing, he said, because
for the moderate drinker it "it is pennies."

However the committee was not unanimous on the policy with
some saying an increase in duty would be more effective. Three Conservative MPS on the select committee are believed to be opposed to the introduction of minimum pricing.

The current government "has given greatest emphasis to the
least effective policies" for tackling excess drinking - education and
information. It has put "too little emphasis to the most effective" -
which are pricing, availability and marketing controls, the report said.

The report suggested extra profits generated by minimum
pricing did not remain with the retailer with a call for the biggest duty rises
on spirits and "industrial strength cider." Duty should be increased in stages
until it is 11% of the average weekly wage - it is currently 5%, the report

The claims have been refuted by the drinks industry. The
Wine and Spirit Trade Association chief executive Jeremy Beadles said: "There
are no surprises here. This Select Committee report is just part of the
concerted campaign by elements of the health lobby for a range of policies
which will punish millions of hard-working people while doing nothing to tackle the problem few.

"The drinks industry is working in partnership with local

authorities and others to combat underage purchase and possession of alcohol and investing in government endorsed campaigns to persuade consumers to change their behaviour.

"Let's focus our efforts on policies which make a difference
rather than pursue a mantra of price rises and bans which will not address the root causes of alcohol misuse."

Diageo GB managing director Simon Litherland added: "We
recognise that alcohol misuse is a matter of serious concern for us all, but we are extremely disappointed by the committee's divisive approach.

"This report represents yet another attempt by aggressive
sections of the health lobby to hijack alcohol policy-making. It seeks to
marginalise the role of industry in helping to tackle the problem of alcohol

The Portman Group chairman Seymour Fortescue said: "We agree
that alcohol related harm is increasing, despite the fact that there has been a
drop in total consumption over the past five years.

"This suggests that measures must be targeted at the
minority of drinkers who abuse alcohol rather than the responsible drinking

Campbell Evans, Scottish Whisky Association government and
consumer affairs director added: "It is disappointing but unsurprising that the Committee has simply re-hashed restrictive blanket policies that fail to target problem drinkers, whilst penalising moderate consumers.

"The Committee is unfairly singling out spirit drinks, such
as Scotch Whisky. Spirit drinks represent less than 20% of the UK drinks
market and alcohol sold as spirits is already taxed more heavily than other
drinks. In calling for minimum pricing, the Committee is seeking to introduce a measure that we believe to be both illegal and ineffective.

"Distillers are committed to tackling alcohol misuse and
support measures to tackle loss-leading alcohol sales, ensure strict licensing
law enforcement, and uphold the highest standards of responsible marketing

Other recommendations outlined in the report included:
mandatory labelling of drinks with warnings and details of units instead of the current voluntary scheme., restrictions on advertising where children will see it including a 9pm watershed on TV and a ban on alcohol ads on social
networking websites, incentives for GPs to detect more problem drinkers,
hospital targets to reduce alcohol admissions, and stronger enforcement by
policing on serving people who are drunk.

The MPS claimed the Department of Culture, Media and Sport,
showed "extraordinary naivety" in believing 24-hour drinking would encourage a café culture and called for this to be reversed.

The report also strongly urged the government to implement
the Mandatory Code as a "matter of urgency."

The recommendations from the health select committee won a
warm welcome from the British Medical Association and the Royal College of
and Alcohol Concern.