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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with Bills),

Question agreed to.


Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions



5 Jan 2004 : Column 130

Alcohol Marketing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

10.30 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): Marketing of alcohol, as with other products, has a real impact on consumers. Who does not know that Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach or that Guinness is good for you? Those are extremely effective marketing slogans, part of our culture and, like other examples of the genre, about as true. I suggest in this Adjournment debate that it is time to draw a line. The consequences of alcohol abuse are now so great that there must be more effective controls over the marketing of alcohol. I declare my interest as chairman of the all-party group on alcohol misuse.

Let me start with the public health costs of the more extreme cases. In September last year, in my constituency, consultant heptalogists at Dudley NHS hospitals trust presented me with a petition whose signatures had been collected nationwide. The concern was with the effects of alcohol addiction, particularly with liver disease. Cirrhosis of the liver is an important cause of illness and death. In the year 2000 it killed more men than Parkinson's disease and more women than cervical cancer. There have been large rises in death rates from chronic liver disease in most age groups. Among 35 to 44-year-olds, there has been an eightfold increase for men and nearly a sevenfold increase for women.

My Dudley doctors were not concerned only with liver disease and other medical problems. A psychiatrist attended the presentation because alcohol addiction relates to dependence and psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety. In all, alcohol dependence syndrome accounts for more than 30,000 hospital admissions per year in the UK.

It is sometimes difficult to get a handle on the other social costs flowing from alcohol abuse. Domestic violence is a major problem. One in nine women experience domestic violence at any one time, with high rates of repeat victimisation. Importantly, there are other indirect consequences such as the psychological effects on children. The relationship with alcohol is complex. The Stella project, working under the auspices of the Mayor of London, argues that men can be violent to women with or without alcohol, but points out that perpetrators may help to create a dependence on alcohol as a tool of control and that victims may themselves become dependent on it to cope with the emotional trauma.

I shall now deal with the night-time economy. At one level, it means the regeneration of city and town centres, but there is a dark underbelly, where an aggressive hedonism is fuelled by the excessive consumption of alcohol. Traditional pubs catering for a wide range of customers have been replaced by multiple vertical drinking establishments geared to a youth market. Too often the accepted norm in such places is that customers will drink to excess. Violence and antisocial behaviour on the streets is the inevitable consequence, making the lives of those living nearby a misery. It can also result in the exclusion from those areas of older people and others who find the atmosphere alien and threatening.

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Excessive alcohol consumption results in heavy demands for services such as ambulances, taking resources away from higher priority cases. Before Christmas, for example, west midlands ambulance service announced that 80 per cent. of its cases during the previous festive period were drink related. During the period between 22 December 2003 and last Friday, the police reported that in Dudley, North there were 84 incidents of alcohol-related offending, from drunken behaviour to violence either at licensed premises or elsewhere in the constituency.

What of the role of marketing in all that? George Orwell described advertising as the rattling of a stick in the swill bucket. The industry would say that the £220 million plus spent a year on alcohol advertising is a force for competition, innovation and consumer choice. The industry claims that the role of advertising is not to increase overall consumption, but rather to enable brands to compete with others in the sector and to gain market share as drinking fashions change. I beg to differ.

I am not suggesting that advertising is the source of all evil with alcohol misuse and the source of the public health consequences. Some marketing and advertising is clever, innovative and attractive, but the industry is selling a product that is not totally benign. It is a product that, in certain circumstances, has serious negative consequences for our health and society. The causal factors in alcohol misuse are many, and marketing is only one of them. Peer pressure can be a major factor among young people, for example. Nor am I suggesting that advertising always hits the target. I am also not suggesting that to ban advertising would solve the problem of alcohol misuse overnight.

The Government's strategy unit, in its interim analytical report on alcohol, has collected a great deal of useful information on the implications of alcohol for our society. In relation to advertising, it cites a recent study that used a large sample of time-series data drawn from 20 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, including the United Kingdom. That study suggests that a partial or total advertising ban would be expected to lower consumption substantially. It contradicts earlier findings concluding that advertising bans would not reduce alcohol consumption.

Page 130 of the interim analytical report is devoted to the susceptibility of younger people to advertising. For example, young people are more conscious of and more likely to follow rapidly evolving trends and fashion. Since they are early in their drinking careers, they are less likely to have established strong brand and drink preferences. One study cited in the report associates advertising with increased binge drinking by young people. It notes the significant amount spent on advertising youth brands.

Of course, advertising is only one aspect of marketing. The interim analytical report quite rightly highlights sponsorships, product tie-ins and placements, contests and special promotions. It estimates that when those are taken into account, total spend on promotional activities in the UK could be in the range of £600 million

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to £800 million annually. There is also the use these days of the internet and mobile telephones in marketing campaigns.

Then there are point-of-sale promotions, many of which are initiated by retailers. In early December, the "Society" section of The Guardian reported on cut-price promotions in Newcastle and Manchester, but they are of course nationwide. The Nicholson report in Scotland identified such promotions as being of special concern in relation to binge drinking, a point to which I shall return.

Let me summarise my concerns. First, the industry spends enormous sums on promotion. Then there is the worrying trend in advertising targeting younger people, especially younger women these days, and associating alcohol with sexual and social success. That type of marketing gives the lie to the industry's claim that marketing is about brand switching. If that were the case, it would have concentrated on the heavy drinking young male. Advertising is also designed to recruit new consumers and increase consumption, and that is why it has in recent years targeted the young, especially younger women.

Secondly, we have one of the laxest regulatory regimes in the world. Television advertisements for alcohol are banned in France, and there are substantial restrictions in other European countries. Yet in the UK in 1995, we saw the end of the voluntary agreement among mainstream spirits producers not to undertake television advertising. We now have substantial advertising of premium, ready-to-drink products. Apart from self-regulation, there is virtually no control over marketing in magazines, at the cinema and on billboard advertisements.

Thirdly, the mainly voluntary controls are not working effectively enough. It is all very well to pray in aid, say, the steps taken by the Portman Group, such as the obligation for merchandise not to contain alcohol brand names if aimed at children, but there are loopholes in the code. The drinks industry can sponsor as many sporting events and teams as it likes, leading to conflicting messages. In my view, some advertisements step over the boundaries of taste and decency. There is the notion of drinking to excess being an essential part of living life to the full.

Some parts of the industry emphasise social responsibility. Some of the multinationals—the drinks industry is dominated by a limited number of multinationals, such as Diageo and Allied Domecq—have a social responsibility marketing section on their websites, but that is not the norm.

What are the options? The Government's forthcoming alcohol strategy will be an opportunity to send stern warnings to the industry about its marketing practices. I hope that the Government will keep the door open to imposing statutory regulation if the industry does not become significantly more responsible in its marketing. The Government's message should be that if the industry wants self-regulation, it will have to make significant and immediate changes. We need not just the occasional socially responsible drinking campaign but for all drinks advertising to be such as to change the drinking culture. I hope that co-regulation of alcohol marketing on television and radio by Ofcom and the Advertising Association will result in a thorough

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re-examination of the current lax approach. If full regulation is to be avoided, the self-regulatory codes must be enforced in spirit, not just to the letter, if they are to survive. The British Medical Association has called for a ban on all television advertising. Unless the industry takes steps now, the case for a ban will be overwhelming.

As part of a more responsible approach, particular marketing techniques need to be controlled. I have already mentioned some of the point-of-sale promotions that encourage binge drinking. Even the Portman Group, in its December briefing note, has seen the writing on the wall and calls for

The Nicholson committee in Scotland drew attention to some establishments whose extreme promotions were designed to attract customers regardless of the consequences to their health or to public order and the amenity of others. The committee proposed that there be a duty on all licensed premises to refrain from anything

Just before Christmas, the Glasgow Licensing Board adopted the Nicholson recommendations on promotions.

I also urge the Government to consider other specific measures in the alcohol strategy. People need to have information about levels of alcohol that are bad for their health and to be able to relate that to the drinks they consume. I have supported the Dudley hepatologists in their call for compulsory labelling of alcohol containers with the number of units of alcohol inside clearly displayed. Some in the industry are already labelling their products along those lines, which is welcome. Cains brewery in Liverpool now labels its 2008 ale with the number of units per bottle and also places a warning on the label:

I commend the brewery for that. Yesterday, the Irish Government announced that they were seriously considering such warnings on all cans and bottles of alcohol.

Labelling would need to be combined with an awareness campaign on the relevance of units of alcohol, which brings me to the use of marketing to campaign for responsible drinking. We are not far off the time when the Government should consider using the creative skills in the advertising world to good effect. The Prime Minister's big conversation contains the question:

Alcohol advertising is already subject to a levy of one tenth of 1 per cent. of expenditure to support the Advertising Standards Authority. So the big conversation question does not raise any new issue of principle, and a positive answer would accord with the notion that any industry must take financial responsibility for associated social costs.

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Alcohol, in the words of a recent WHO-sponsored publication, is no ordinary commodity. It has very serious costs. One in 13 adults is dependent on alcohol—some 280,000 in the west midlands alone. Among younger people, there is the particular problem of binge drinking, which is a cause of antisocial behaviour and violence, quite apart from the long-term health effects for them and costs to the NHS.

Some marketing techniques encourage messages about unacceptable drinking. The industry, regulators, the Government and Members of Parliament must urgently address the issue. The forthcoming alcohol strategy provides an important opportunity for everyone involved to take up the challenge of encouraging a more responsible attitude towards alcohol.

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