This was the most unkindest cut of all… In public, David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, was fulsomely supportive of the Government’s latest offensive in the war against alcohol abuse. “We welcome,” he said in a hastily trundled out release, “the private review into whether price promotions contribute to harmful drinking.”
In private, the drinks industry was anything but welcoming. Stunned, mystified, angry: yes; welcoming, no.
It was not so much what the Government had done in launching its new 10-year strategy for dealing with our unruly drinking culture as the way it had done it. Surreptitiously, sneakily even – in direct contravention of the spirit of amity and goodwill which had previously allowed government and industry to collaborate over the socially responsible Drink Aware project. Behind which, by the way, the industry had put millions of pounds of funding, in the apparently mistaken belief that it was some kind of partner in the responsible drinking campaign.
In fact, Home Office minister Vernon Coaker and public health minister Caroline Flint seemed to have decided they can manage perfectly well on their own. What other reason can they have had for making the hurtful suggestion, among other things, that there was going to be a public consultation on the “need for a regulatory change in the future” if the Government finds “compelling evidence” that price promotions and advertising cause people to drink more? Here was ingratitude indeed, all the more wounding since no one had given the drinks industry enough time to prepare its ground.
In truth, the industry has every right to be annoyed – though it should not be surprised – at the ambivalence of the Government’s attitude to it. Is it an enemy, or an ally? For surely it cannot be both, to be seduced and then betrayed at whim.
Step forward Flint as the villain of the piece. Personable and thrusting, Flint would like to make the transition from junior minister to one of the greater offices of state as soon as she reasonably can. Health is too ambitious a portfolio for now (though Patricia Hewitt is definitely on her way out), but it sure is a good vote-catching platform from which to attract the attention of her superiors. And, let’s face it, the drinks industry and advertising – particularly the combination of the two – make a very soft, tempting target.
Mind you, even Flint and Coaker have only gone so far as to recommend a review, rather than direct legislative intervention, in such emotive areas as the ‘happy hour’ and supermarket beer bogofs. If it were left to the medical lobby, a ban would be brought in overnight. Here is the eminent Professor Ian Gilmore, liver expert and president of the Royal College of Physicians, opining on the subject:
“International evidence shows that increasing price and reducing availability are the two main ways of reducing people’s drinking, and while we welcome the review of retailing and promotions, this should not be used to delay action in this area.” International evidence such as, perhaps, the American Prohibition, that gave us Al Capone? Or the serious binge culture afflicting punitively alcohol-taxed Sweden? Get away with you!
But what has reason to do with this debate? Drinking culture is a highly emotional topic that provides ready capital for the astute political fixer. In this debate, the drinks industry will always come off second-best, unless it prepares its position a lot more carefully. It has tried the olive-branch, collaborative approach with little effect. Whatever happened to Mr Nasty?
Here’s some advice. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the Tory Party en bouffant (aka Boris Johnson) line of war to the knife: a game of legislative brinksmanship that pushes Flint and her friends to put up or shut up. But I do suggest some earnest discussions with the supermarkets, who have every reason to make common cause with the drinks industry on this issue, since they will be next in the line of fire. Combined, your lobbying power will have a corrective, improving effect upon the politicians’ behaviour.