|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
"Alcohol in moderation has some very positive social and personal effects. It is not true that the only safe route for most people is total abstinence."
Although we have always spent a long time as a nation thinking, speaking and writing about alcohol-I do not think any country has more expressions for being drunk than we do-we now fetishise alcohol in a way that was not apparent 50 or even 25 years ago. The alcohol industry now spends between £600 million and £800 million a year on drinks marketing and advertising. It has been phenomenally successful in implanting in Britain's collective consciousness the idea that drinking alcohol is synonymous with social, sexual, physical and material success. It has succeeded brilliantly in tapping into our deepest and most heartfelt aspirations and desires, and suggesting that alcohol can help us meet them, even if just for a brief, escapist moment on a Friday or Saturday night. As a result of those efforts, alcohol is now seen by millions of young people as an essential lifestyle prop that can help confer instant glamour and open the door to success and popularity.
Nor, thanks to the drinks industry, is alcohol consumption limited to a few specific, well-defined periods in the week any more. As the British Society of Gastroenterology and British Association for the Study of the Liver pointed out in their written evidence, we have contrived in recent years to superimpose the southern European culture of regular heavy drinking to accompany food on our long-standing Anglo-Saxon culture of feast and binge drinking. We are now, as they put it,
"reaping the consequences in terms of liver deaths".
In fact, there has been a gradual merging of drinking cultures across Europe. Only a few years ago French experts were confidently predicting that a binge drinking
culture was unlikely to take root there, as alcohol was culturally integrated. They said that the French, having been introduced to alcohol at an early age, drank in a controlled fashion, if perhaps a little too regularly, and that getting visibly and audibly incapacitated was seen as neither cool nor particularly impressive. The French have always taken that attitude.
However, although the overall level of alcohol consumption in France is declining, as we have heard today, "le binge drinking" among young people has emerged as a real problem and a raft of legislation has been proposed to tackle it. In fact, the French have far more draconian advertising laws than we do. It is extremely difficult now for the French to advertise alcohol in any social context at all. They can merely present the brand, and that is all they can do. They cannot associate it with any particular culture or with glamour.
The French phenomenon has been described as part of a "globalisation of behaviour" evident in all 27 EU member states, with teenagers increasingly seeking instant intoxication as an end in itself. However, attitudes can change in the other direction as well. The best example that I can think of is in Germany, where beer consumption has declined dramatically in the past decade. It was the capital of Europe for beer drinking, but it has now lost its crown to the Czech Republic. Health considerations have certainly played a part in that decline, but the changing image of beer has been the most important thing. Beer drinking is now seen by many young people in Germany as a staid old man's pursuit and distinctly uncool. Consequently, the Germans have shifted their drinking patterns far more towards alcohol such as spirits.
That shows that although we can never change young people's desire to drink and to experiment with alcohol, the image of alcohol is very important in shaping what, when, where and-crucially-how much they drink. That is why we need to exert far greater control over how alcohol is marketed and advertised in this country. It is not an altruistic desire to support the sports industry or music scene that has led Carling, for example, to sponsor the Football League cup, Rangers and Celtic football clubs and, until recently, the Reading festival and various leading music venues across London. It is motivated instead by the company's self-confessed desire to
"become the most respected youth brand".
"the heroes at the venue"-
"Sponsorship is a way of raising brand awareness, creating positive brand attitudes and building emotional connections with consumers. Its power comes not from direct advertising messages but through associating the brand with an already engaging event or celebrity, and gaining power and credibility in the process."
A focus on football and live music is designed to grab the attention of young male teenagers and increase the likelihood of their making Carling one of their first
alcohol purchases. In choosing voluntarily to remove its logo from child-size replica Rangers and Celtic shirts two years ago, Carling more or less admitted that the association between the clubs and the brand had a direct and positive influence upon young people's attitudes towards the Carling brand. Mark Hunter, the chief executive of Coors, Carling's parent company, said at the time:
"Coors and the Old Firm clubs have a long track-record in working together to champion responsible drinking. This means ensuring that sponsorship is not improperly targeted at people under the legal drinking age and using the combination of one of the UK's leading brands and football to promote responsible consumption by adults."
Carling is perfectly content, however, for that same group of young people to watch Rangers and Celtic on TV or in person at Ibrox or Parkhead, with every player's shirt in the whole stadium festooned with the Carling logo. That apparently does not constitute "improper targeting" in the eyes of either Carling, the clubs or the football authorities. If there is logic there, I am afraid I cannot spot it.
In my view, the Government need to wake up to the way in which the alcohol industry is grooming potential young drinkers through music and sport. That flies directly in the face of the stated intentions of Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group to protect children and young people from advertising and marketing.
The only sure way to tackle the problem is removing the alcohol industry's ability to target young people in that way. Banning alcohol advertising and sponsorship from events that are attended by children and young people, or watched by them on TV, is one way to enable young people to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol.
When the Committee took evidence, we heard of the change in marketing practices towards viral marketing and the use of the internet as a means of getting the message across. We were assured by witnesses that there was protection for young people, because they had to access a privileged site, which was of course difficult to do. However, during the inquiry-in front of the witnesses-I used my internet-enabled phone to get on to the relevant website. I was asked to enter my date of birth to ensure that I was over 18, so I entered the date 30 February 1980 and was allowed entry. I entered a completely fictitious address, which could not possibly have been logical, but the site was happy with that. Therefore, those safeguards to protect young people clearly do not work. One can enter any date of birth, and site will be quite happy to allow access its content.
We need to ensure that when the industry says it is cleaning up its act, it is doing so and behaving responsibly. I do not attack the industry lightly, and I do not believe the whole of it is to blame, but it clearly needs to get its house in order if we are to protect young people. The market is changing, as is the way in which things are advertised, and there is far less control over internet and viral advertising, so it is even more important that firms act responsibly to ensure that young people are not exposed to the increasing glamorisation of alcohol, thereby leading themselves inevitably to increased health risks in future.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 earlier in the week about marmalade. It was said that marmalade was invented by the Scots in the 1740s to go on toast. Before that, they used to drink alcohol, in the form of ale, for breakfast, so imbibing ale in large quantities and at odd times of day is well known in British history. If one could go back to Hogarth's times, or the industrial revolution, one would see that high alcohol consumption was always a factor. That was why there were always temperance movements, and strong feelings and debates as society developed.
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), mentioned the difference in duty between 1947 and today. To some extent, alcohol consumption has increased because of affluence-people simply have more disposable income and more choices. It is also worth noting that people live rather longer than they did in 1947. One must take into account a range of factors concerning how people live today.
Clearly, there is a hard core of people who drink multiples of what they should. That is the problem of alcohol abuse. Sometimes they are older people, but they are not necessarily poor, and we also seem to have a problem with young people in some of our city centres. One need only go through the range of Sky channels on television and find a programme about city centre policing to see the problems and costs of alcohol on Friday and Saturday nights.
I believe that pricing is less of a factor than other hon. Members believe. It is a factor, especially when people buy from supermarkets, but it is also a question of supply. If we want to stop children getting alcohol, we must get alcohol out of the home. Almost any home, including mine, will have gin, whisky and various other things sitting in a sideboard somewhere, which will probably not be locked.
Some years ago, I was taken out one evening in a Dorset police van. The police were picking up schoolchildren aged 13 or 14, almost all of whom had alcohol, almost all of which came from the parental home. The police would take the children home and show the parents, most of whom were unaware that their kids had alcohol and that that alcohol was missing from their drinks cabinet. Therefore, the first thing we must focus on is parenting. How do we keep an eye on what children get up to because of peer pressure as they get older? Price would not affect that, because a youngster could easily take a bottle of gin from home. That is an important factor.
Another factor is that we need role models to persuade youngsters to act more responsibly. Sometimes, the footballers whom people aspire to be like these days are not always the best role models for youngsters.
The debate relates to the Health Committee's report on alcohol. It ought to be said that the drinks industry is very important. There was an exchange earlier in the debate about Scotland: the scotch industry is important in areas of our country where alternative jobs might not be so easy to get, and it is a major exporter that creates wealth for our country; and the brewing industry involves more than 400,000 jobs. In my dealings with the industry as a Member of Parliament, and before that as a
councillor, I have found that the vast bulk of it is responsible. The industry appreciates that it must be responsible-the House ought to acknowledge the Portman Group and other initiatives that have been funded to promote responsible drinking.
Kelvin Hopkins: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the Portman Group, but is that not simply a way of making the drinks industry more respectable, so as to persuade the Government not to legislate?
Mr. Syms: Sometimes the most powerful message on responsible drinking is sent by the industry itself. Following the changes in the licensing laws, police officers from Poole police station who go around the pubs and clubs say that there has been a tie-up between them, the drinks industry and many publicans. The drinks industry has helped to finance local policing and the training of landlords, which is important. As we have heard in this debate, part of the problem is selling via supermarkets. Most legitimate licensees act in a responsible manner, but they need training, support and investment from the drinks industry. We should not leave this subject without saying how successful the industry has been.
We must find a way to educate people about what they drink and how much they take in. I have always felt that showing units of alcohol on glasses or products is important in that way. In recent years, many wine bars have gone for larger glass sizes, and people do not always know what they are drinking. Another trend is that wine has become much stronger. The wine that people drank 20 years ago was a fraction of the strength of the wine we drink today.
Greg Mulholland: As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, there has been good news on that. Following my campaign to reintroduce 125 ml glasses, which was supported by several hon. Members in the Chamber, the Government have announced that it will be in the mandatory code. Drinkers will therefore once again have the choice of having smaller as well as medium and large glasses-and, of course, there will be standard size.
Mr. Syms: Measurement is vital, and perhaps we ought to introduce some means of measuring alcohol in pubs and clubs. For example, a person could blow into a device that could tell them how much they had drunk. We must find a way to educate youngsters about the harm they are doing, which includes the antisocial behaviour that quite often follows in many of our inner cities.
Although I broadly sign up to the report, I have one or two reservations on what it says about advertising. It is easy to attack the advertising industry in reports, but after all, it simply gives consumers information, on the basis of which they make choices. Advertising can play an important role in getting messages about harm across to people. We should make friends with the advertising industry, because if we could galvanise it into starting to make points about harm, it would be a useful tool in educating people.
Some of the advertisers have raised concerns about the Committee's suggestions. For instance, ITV and Channel 4 think that the changes could cost them up to £60 million in revenue. There will also be an impact on
sporting events. We have to be much more targeted in our approach to this problem. We have to include parents and parenting, and we have to ensure that people know the number of units they consume and the long-term harm that can ensue.
Dr. Stoate: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about voluntary advertising codes, but the Committee heard lots of evidence that that was not working. We have been there before with the tobacco industry, which claimed that it could behave, advertise and promote responsibly-but that simply did not work. It flew in the face of common sense to think that it would, because what it was really interested in was making profits. In evidence submitted to the Committee, we saw campaign after campaign in which producers were not sticking to the spirit, let alone the letter, of the rules, including prohibitions on promoting to under-25s and not associating alcohol with glamour or success. This fond belief that the industry can promote itself does not bear much examination.
Mr. Syms: Well, I sometimes think that that approach is better than too much of a centralised approach. If we drive advertising off the airwaves it will go on to the internet, which is less controlled. If we have a proper code for producers to follow-and the vast majority do-even if it is not perfect, it is a better approach than clamping down on people, which can lead to creative methods of advertising that are less controlled. The worst examples we saw were from the internet, rather than the press or television. We have to be careful with that approach.
"The Committee expressed concerns about "gaps" in the regulation of digital marketing during your investigations. I wanted to let you know that this week the Advertising Association has finalised a set of proposals to shut this regulatory loophole, extending the Advertising Standards Authority's remit."
The vast majority of my constituents enjoy a responsible drink. We have seen a change in recent years, much of it because people do not drink and drive these days. As a result, they tend to purchase more alcohol in supermarkets and imbibe it at home, where it is very easy to open another bottle. Drinking in the home is more common, which often means drinking in front of children. Just as there are concerns that the smoking ban means that people smoke more at home in the presence of their children, there are concerns that people are drinking more at home.
The report is a useful contribution to the debate on alcohol and its consequences, and I hope that it will inform public policy. It may also get into the newspapers and draw to the attention of youngsters, who think that they will live for ever, the fact that they will face real problems if they abuse themselves by drinking excessive
amounts of alcohol. I hope that we find the right solutions, but as I have said, I think that the industry is-broadly speaking-doing a good job. However, it can always do better, and we must also look to the high cost in terms of health of some of the abuses that occur today. It will be interesting to see what happens. I hope that we make progress so that people can enjoy a responsible drink, but we crack down on the hard core and redouble our efforts, especially among students and other young people, among whom there is a real problem. There is no magic bullet, but if we do not deal with that problem we will be dealing with its consequences for many generations to come.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is obvious that Britain has a serious and growing alcohol problem, and successive Governments have failed to address it. What has been done so far is mere pussyfooting, and I hope that they start to take the issue seriously before we end up in the same situation as Russia, where the population is declining, largely as a result of alcohol consumption. The Russian Government have finally bitten the bullet and started to raise the price of vodka. We do not want to get to that stage before taking serious action.
We have heard some warm words about the drinks industry, but the malign influence of that industry on Governments has deterred them from taking the problem seriously and from taking proper action. I hope that the report, which I greatly welcome and strongly support, will help to press the Government to do the right thing. It is time that we said to the drinks industry, "We understand your position-you make drink to make profit. Our job is to protect the population and their health."
For some five years when I first entered the House, I was the chair of the all-party group on alcohol misuse. I have also raised several questions about alcohol issues. We waited for a long time before the Government brought forward their alcohol strategy, and in the end it was not the most wonderful document and was not terribly effective. In the last Parliament, I also tabled an early-day motion that drew attention to the dramatic fall in the real price of alcoholic drinks as a proportion of disposable income-something on which the Chairman of the Committee focused. I welcome what he said, and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) also made an excellent contribution. We need action now.
Other countries have different regimes. I was recently in Washington with the Select Committee, and it was Halloween, which is a great celebration in the US. Thousands of people dress up in fancy dress and go out into the streets. We were in Georgetown with thousands of young people in the streets and none of them was drunk. Indeed, they were all well behaved. That was because the Americans have a rigidly enforced minimum age for the consumption of alcohol of 21. Some of our staff in their 20s and even early 30s were challenged.
Dr. Stoate: When I was last in Washington on a Select Committee inquiry, I was refused alcohol on the grounds that I could not prove that I was over 21 as I did not have my passport with me. I was not sure whether to feel flattered or insulted.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|