Study finds alcohol industry resists regulation because its income depends on heavy drinking

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A new report by from the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group has said that producers and retailers should not be allowed to influence government policy on risky drinking because of the financial conflicts of interest involved.

In another damning blow to the image of alcohol and the contrast with its legality with the illegality of cannabis, the study found that revenue from alcohol sales in England would plummet by £13bn if customers complied with the recommended drinking guidelines. This is why policies to address this harm, like minimum unit pricing and raising alcohol duty, have been resisted at every turn by the alcohol industry – drinks companies realise that a significant reduction in harmful drinking would be financially ruinous.

Aveek Bhattacharya, a policy analyst at the institute and lead author, said: “The government should recognise just how much the industry has to lose from effective alcohol policies, and be more wary of its attempts to derail meaningful action through lobbying and offers of voluntary partnership.”

The researchers found that if everyone stuck to the recommended limit of 14 units a week, alcohol sales revenue would decline by 38%. To claw that back they would face increasing the average price of a pint of beer in a pub by £2.64 and the average price of a bottle of spirits in supermarkets by £12.25.

Heavy drinkers provide 68% of industry revenue, despite making up 25% of the population. Furthermore, the 4% drinking at harmful levels (more than 35 units a week for women and more than 50 units a week for men), account for 23% of sales revenue.

Alcohol causes 24,000 deaths and over 1.1 million hospital admissions each year in England, at a cost of £3.5bn to the NHS. The alcohol industry has often been at odds with health campaigners, the medical profession and charities in the drive to reduce excessive drinking, with producers and retailers championing self-regulation. Token gesture concessions have included setting up its own ‘responsible drinking’ organisations, the Portman Group and Drinkaware, which have been criticised for allegedly placing the interests of the industry above public health considerations.

The government has faced accusations of marching to the industry’s drum, on everything from the coalition government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, which brought alcohol businesses on board to make voluntary commitments, to the U-turn on minimum unit pricing.

In 2012, David Cameron announced plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales but the plan was shelved the following year, despite support from doctors, children’s charities, the police and even the government’s own health advisers. The u-turn came after concerted lobbying from the alcohol industry, which has also resisted calls for mandatory, graphic cigarette-style health warnings on bottles and cans of alcohol.

A government-commissioned review in 2016 found that alcohol was the biggest killer of people aged between 15 and 49 in England, accounted for 167,000 years of lost productivity each year and was a factor in more than 200 illnesses.

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