By David Troy – Research Associate, Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, University of Bristol
In 2016, the UK chief medical officers revised their low-risk drinking guidelines, which followed a review of the latest evidence of the health effects related to alcohol consumption. The Portman Group, the organisation established by the alcohol industry to promote responsible drinking is no longer advising its members to include these low-risk guidelines on their products as a minimum requirement. Their position is that labels should include information about drinking in pregnancy, the number of alcohol units in per container and the Drinkaware website as three key priorities. Other information is outlined as optional additions. John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group, has explained this decision by suggesting that the health information drinkers need is already available to them. He has said that “Producers are encouraged to feature proactive signposting to Drinkaware.co.uk where consumers can find a full range of health information including calories, lifestyle advice and smart apps”. Drinkaware is an industry-supported charity that argues that it is autonomous, although its independence has been called into question by an independent review and the UK Parliament’s Health Select Committee. The new Portman Group line appears to be a departure from recent policy, which has seen them support voluntary initiatives that promote corporate social responsibility. The most prominent of these is the ‘Public Health Responsibility Deal’. In this deal, industry members pledged to include labels with clear unit content, NHS drinking guidelines and warnings about drinking in pregnancy on 80% of their products in the off-trade among other pledges.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association, the British Beer and Pub Association, the National Association of Cider Makers, and the Scotch Whisky Association also support the Portman Group’s guidance. Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, defended the decision not to advise firms to include the guidance on labels, arguing that all health information is available on the Internet: “We are providing more information than ever before online, including guidance on health information and calorie content, alongside the revised Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines”. However, some organisations, such as the British Retail Consortium and the brewer Tennant’s, have already updated labels on their products to include the new government guidelines.
A new alcohol consumer organisation, Drinkers’ Voice, has come out against having the new guidelines on alcohol products. Drinkers’ Voice claims to represent moderate drinkers but in a recent survey of 972 drinkers carried out a month after the new guidelines were released, 63% strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “The government has a responsibility to release guidance on how drinkers can minimise health risks”, while 11% strongly disagreed/disagreed and 26% responded neither/don’t know. This seems to contradict Drinkers’ Voice director Byron Davies claim that “People just don’t want to listen to the government when it comes to alcohol advice anymore”. Also, 71% of respondents were aware of the new guidelines, but only 8% knew what the recommended limits were. So, it appears that drinkers do want the government to inform them of ‘low-risk drinking levels’ and are aware of the information when it is released, but are unable to recall the new limits. What better place to communicate this information that is wanted by drinkers than on alcohol products they consume on a regular basis?
The government has responded, with a Department of Health spokesman saying: “We have been clear to the industry that we expect the UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidance be reflected on alcohol labels, and have provided clear advice and examples of how best to display the message. They can be reflected simply by a reference to the weekly recommendation of 14 units, the no drinking in pregnancy logo and the Drinkaware logo”. The Department of Health has given manufacturers until September 2019 to remove the old advice on drinking levels from their products. However, without legislation compelling drinks manufacturers to include the new drinking guidelines on their products, we will have no drinking guidelines on the majority of alcohol products.
In the service of clarity, the new guidelines are that men and women who drink regularly are safest if they drink no more than 14 units per week, that it is best to spread the 14 units over a period of 3 days or more, and that the safest approach for women who are pregnant is not to drink at all. Having labels on alcohol products that include these guidelines is motivated by a principle that consumers have a right to know what harms can come from what they consume rather than wanting drinkers to consume less. The limited evidence available suggests that while promotion of alcohol guidelines might raise awareness of recommended drinking limits, they do not reduce alcohol consumption. This position is shared by the four UK Chief Medical Officers (from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) who carried out the review of the lower risk drinking guidelines. Their rationale behind the new guidelines was that everybody has a right to accurate information regarding health risks associated with alcohol consumption and it is the government’s responsibility to provide such information so the public can make informed choices about their drinking.