The right direction

For many in the trade, the prospect of a deal of any sort with government might ring hollow. After a decade or more of tax increases and ever more punitive regulation, you might be forgiven for being suspicious about the idea of an agreement that commits us, and it, to a plan of action.

But the responsibility deal on public health being proposed by the coalition government demands a more generous response. For a start, it looks like the type of approach the industry has been seeking for some time, based on individual and corporate responsibility and with a focus on education.

I recall a meeting around the time the industry agreed the Why Let Good Times Go Bad campaign, at which a Department of Health representative explained that alcohol misuse presented issues the government was obliged to deal with. The message was simple – government has to deal with this and we would like to work with you; if you choose not to, government will carry on regardless.

Now, courtesy of the coalition government, we have an opportunity to co-operate and agree a framework for the duration of this parliament. It makes sense for all sorts of reasons.

We should welcome the fact that ministers recognise the benefit of a collaborative approach with industry.

But as part of the deal we must be prepared to accept that we will be asked to make some concessions we’d rather not contemplate. This is not to accept defeat before the battle has been fought. It is merely to accept that, while negotiation holds the promise of something better, it may require the odd concession.

The aims of the responsibility deal are ones I hope we can all support:

Improving people’s health

Encouraging a healthier diet

Fostering a culture of responsible drinking

Encouraging people to become more physically active

Supporting our workforce to lead healthier lives.

No one could challenge the wisdom of these ideals. As ever, the real challenge lies in agreeing deliverable actions that will make a difference. I have been asked to chair the alcohol working group reporting to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, which will bring together senior figures from across the industry.

The Department for Health has identified areas in which government and the drinks industry might start a discussion:

Supporting local action through Community Alcohol Partnerships and other community initiatives

Maintaining a system to prevent inappropriate advertising and product promotion, paying particular concern to the exposure of young people

Promoting sensible drinking across a range of settings and media outlets, maximising the opportunities provided by Drinkaware and Change4Life

Subject to the results of a current UK-wide consultation, improve information on alcohol labels by including units, drinking-when-pregnant warnings and the chief medical officer’s sensible drinking guidance on the vast majority of products by 2014

Offering and promoting alcohol-free and reduced-alcohol alternatives

Developing proposals for a respon­sible retailing code for the off-trade

Supporting alcohol education (especially to under-18s)

Enabling companies to develop and implement coherent workplace alcohol policies.

It is clear that proposals might go beyond this and new ideas will emerge during discussions – and some will fall by the wayside – but it is, at least, a starting point. There is much here we could agree upon and some are our own initiatives, which we are delivering already.

The Wine & Spirit Trade Association helped launch the Community Alcohol Partnerships now having such a tangible impact on communities around the UK. We welcome government support for the concept and will continue to urge central and local government to support this initiative. There are other local partnership schemes – Best Bar None, Purple Flag and BIDs – all of which have an equally important role to play.

We are confident our industry’s advertising code, administered through the Portman Group, is robust in ensuring those under the age of 18 are not exposed to alcohol advertising.

Equally, steps industry has taken to communicate with those who misuse alcohol are well recognised and we hope our investment in the Why Let Good Times Go Bad campaign, through Drinkaware, continues to feature in the government’s assessment of practical steps to encourage responsible consumption of alcohol.

While we might expect this government to continue to support a voluntary industry approach on labelling it would be unwise to imagine we will not face calls to do more. It may be welcome in some areas. Our perennial call for increased emphasis on education about alcohol for under-18s is gaining ground.

There are other parts of the conversation that we may not like, and a key part of the debate will be understanding the government’s commitments, because this can’t just be a one-way negotiation. The fact that ministers wish to harness this approach ought to be seized on by the industry – not because it’s an immediate advantage for us but because it has to make sense to negotiate an agreement based on shared commitments rather than simply be told what to do.

I have long argued that we in the drinks industry will do best when we focus on the big issues and agree with government what we, and they, should do. Now we have our chance.

On behalf of the industry, the WSTA is hosting a workshop on October 27 in London to discuss these issues and to hear from Andrew Lansley on his vision of a responsibility deal.

Anyone interested in attending should contact Beadles is chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association