A couple of weeks ago I was afforded the opportunity to speak at the Drink Tank industry conference in London. I was delighted to do so, not just because it is an important and respected event for UK producers and retailers, but also because I wanted to stress the need for our industry to come together and do more to tackle alcohol harm and promote social responsibility.
A responsible industry
This is, without question, a responsible industry. Producers and retailers have, for many years, taken steps to ensure alcohol is produced and sold responsibility. The industry has backed measures to improve our night time economy, reduce binge drinking, tackle underage drinking and eradicate drink driving. The numbers back up our efforts – by almost all measures we’ve made great progress over the last 10-15 years – and those achievements are a direct consequence of industry action. We’re sometimes shy to take credit for what we’ve achieved but that shouldn’t detract from the reality.
It would be logical to conclude that with progress in the right direction, we just need to continue as we are, maintaining the status quo. Although I wish it were, I’m afraid that simply isn’t the case. There remain some difficult challenges for us to overcome. The very small minority of people drinking at exceptionally high levels remain stubbornly resistant to change. Alcohol-related deaths are broadly flat. The frequent flyers appearing in our A&E departments, for whom alcohol misuse is often just one part of a complex and challenging set of conditions, contribute hugely to the burden on the NHS. And there is increasing discussion amongst parliamentarians about the impact of alcohol misuse on families and young people.
What to expect from Government?
Set against that backdrop, it isn’t difficult to imagine a future government, free from the constraints of Brexit, looking at what more needs to be done. My message to the industry leaders at Drink Tank was to stress the need for action now to tackle these challenges and thereby offset regulatory risk further down the line. I set out at that event the two pathways in front of us – one featuring highly interventionist Government restrictions that curb innovation and stifle growth and another in which through self-regulation and voluntary action, producers and retailers demonstrate beyond question their commitment to keeping their house in order and continuing to tackle harms.
Our nearest neighbours have set out what a more restrictive environment will include. The Irish Public Health (Alcohol) Act, passed last year includes a range of precedent-setting measures that restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol. In Scotland, there is appetite to build on the roll out of minimum unit pricing with further curbs on marketing.
A collective response
But it needn’t be this way. We have a window in which to bolster our social responsibility credentials by taking ownership of both the successes we’ve enjoyed but also the challenges and issues that remain. To do so, we must look beyond short-term, narrow interests and work collectively to make demonstrable and credible progress. The Portman Group, as the sole industry-body working across Beer, Wine, Spirits and Cider, is best placed to deliver this collective commitment to action. Effective and impactful industry self-regulation, supported across the sector, is a great example of what we can achieve together but we must do more.
I urged all those at the Drink Tank event to come together and begin a new conversation on alcohol social responsibility in 2020. The Portman Group will be at the forefront of this discussion but we need everyone to get involved. We want to be a broad church, working with all parts of the sector, and I’m pleased that we’re engaged with and working alongside more producers than ever before. If you’ve not yet got involved, or you’d like to discuss how you can play your part, don’t hesitate to get in touch.