Working in partnership to improve public health: the success of the last five years


Britain is changing its relationship with alcohol for the better.  Official government statistics show that over the last five years there have been significant and sustained declines in underage drinking, under-18s hospital admissions due to alcohol, binge drinking and alcohol-related crime – a continuation of what are now decade-long, positive trends.

There are many who would assume these improvements in public health and reduction in alcohol-related harms could only have come about through tough regulatory inventions. But in the UK this has not been the case. Quite the opposite in fact, as recent analysis by the Institute of Economic Affairs testifies.

Instead, an increasingly positive partnership between the public sector and business has prevailed. By working together, government (both local and national) and the drinks industry have helped continue the positive culture change around alcohol in this country.  At a time when government budgets and public services are under immense pressure, harnessing the expertise and resources of industry has proved effective in helping deliver important social policy goals.

Recognising and trusting business to be part of the solution is the first step to building a successful partnership. Drinks companies want to continue playing a significant and sustainable role in UK plc and recognise their responsibilities to consumers. So when in 2011 the government began to challenge to the industry to help improve public health, they responded with a set of public, voluntary commitments unprecedented anywhere in Europe.

Now, as a new government considers how it will continue to improve public health, we should look back on the success of some of the key pledges.

In order to provide more health information for consumers, drinks companies have labelled 80% of products on shelves with unit information, the Chief Medical Officers guidelines and a warning about drinking when pregnant. Now over 90% of labels now carry an unambiguous warning not to drink during pregnancy, a five-fold increase since 2008. As labelling remains an EU competency, legislation in this area could take years to achieve, but by working in partnership we have been able to provide important health information quickly and at no cost to the taxpayer. Government Ministers recognise this.

Alongside the labelling pledge, the industry made additional pledges to improve information and education about alcohol, including continuing to provide funding for the independent charity Drinkaware, and blind-funding for life-skills and alcohol education in schools.

We know that despite the positive national trends around alcohol in the last decade, there are local areas that still suffer disproportionately from alcohol-related harms. To support these areas the industry has rolled-out a number of local partnership schemes targeting underage drinking, alcohol-related crime and disorder. By working with local authorities, these schemes have helped to improve the safety and management of the night-time economy, reduce the burden on local public services and increase footfall in many town centres. The schemes have also been concentrated in Local Alcohol Action Areas, designated by government, that require specific support for particular alcohol-related problems.

Finally, to help foster a culture of responsible drinking and encourage more adults to drink within the governments safe guidelines, the industry pledged to remove one billion units of alcohol from the market. In fact, the industry removed 1.3 billion units (and two years ahead of schedule), through a combination of lowering the strength of well-known brands, widening the choice of lower alcohol products, offering lower alcohol house wine as default, and pledging to not produce or sell any single-serve cans containing more than four units.

The billion units pledge is a leading example of how business can use its expertise in marketing and brand innovation to help deliver government social policy objectives. Lowering the strength of well-known products or marketing new lower-strength alternatives simply cant be delivered through government levers – although incentivising such innovation is certainly possible. But by working with industry, the public sector can harness the knowledge and skills of the private sector and together the partnership can encourage healthier choices among consumers.

The success of the last five years clearly demonstrates that drinks businesses are committed and willing partners of government - nationally and locally - when it comes to improving the health of consumers.  For the next five years the industry will be an increasing presence on the front line against alcohol harms, working alongside councils, local police forces and health services in those areas that are remain out of kilter with the improving national picture.

International governments and other industry sectors are increasingly looking to the UK's model for inspiration when it comes to building partnership frameworks to improve public health. The leadership and hard work of the drinks industry in the last five years is something we should be proud of.

Henry Ashworth,

Chief Executive, Portman Group