Health Committee - The Government's Alcohol StrategyWritten evidence from the Association of Convenience Stores (GAS 21)

1. ACS (the Association of Convenience Stores) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this important Inquiry. ACS represents 33,500 local shops across the UK, the majority of which hold alcohol licenses and would be affected by the measures outlined in the Government’s Alcohol Strategy.

2. Convenience stores recognise they have a significant role to play in helping to tackle alcohol misuse and are strong supporters of the Government’s Responsibility Deal. ACS also engages with Government on matters of national alcohol policy. Our aim is to ensure that measures are implemented only where there is clear evidence that they are necessary and any new regulation is developed to minimise the cost and disruption on local shop businesses.

3. In the evidence below ACS views on the following issues are set out:

The role of retail and the alcohol industry in addressing alcohol-related health problems.

Minimum unit pricing and a ban on multi-buy promotions.

Additional measures to tackle alcohol misuse.

Responsibility for alcohol policy within Government.

Coordination of policy across the UK with the devolved administrations.

The Role of Retail and the Alcohol Industry in Addressing Alcohol-Related Health Problems

The role of local shops

4. ACS represents over 33,500 local shops across the United Kingdom. Alcohol is an important part of a convenience stores range accounting for on average just over 12% of the sales.1 Selling alcohol comes with a significant amount of responsibility and a range of compliance requirements. It is also a product with which errors in compliance or negligence come with severe consequences for a business or even lead to criminal prosecutions for individuals.

5. Preventing underage drinking is the most important concern for local shops; both in terms of the risk of underage sales taking place and the consequences of underage drinking for the individual and the community.

6. Local shop owners and their staff represent a frontline against access to alcohol for these young people. A recent survey of ACS members demonstrated that more than a quarter of retailers have to refuse age restricted sales more than ten times per week.2

Responsible Retailing Initiatives

7. There have been significant improvements in the performance of off licence retailers in preventing underage sales in the past ten years. There is no sense that this is a problem that has been solved, but the following important initiatives have had a vital role to play:

Challenge 25—an industry wide approach to age verification policies and customer communication.

Proof of Age Standards Scheme—providing a hallmark for proof of age card schemes and tackle fake ID.

CitizenCard—the not for profit, commercial proof of age card that has issued more than a million cards over more than 10 years.

Community Alcohol Partnerships—a new approach to preventing and dealing with the effects of underage drinking in communities. Invariably achieving better outcomes that previous enforcement focused strategies.

The Portman Group—ACS supports the enforcement of the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks.

8. These schemes have been accompanied by a wealth of local, corporate and individual initiatives that have made a significant difference to access to alcohol from shops. We must, however, continue to focus on attention in two areas:

(i)retailers have still to improve their performance in preventing access to alcohol. Current indications that success in complying with internal age verification policies is at an off-trade average of 78%.3 This can still be improved.

(ii)young people get alcohol from a number of routes not all related to buying it themselves. The single most likely course of alcohol for a young person is to be given it by someone else; this can be older peers or even parents.

9. The reality is that in order to prevent young people developing harmful behaviours related to alcohol at a young age we need a holistic approach. The very best example of communities tackling the problem this way is the Community Alcohol Partnership.

Responsibility Deal

10. Retailers and the alcohol industry are very aware of the importance of tackling alcohol misuse. Retailers want to be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem, when it comes to tackling these issues. As a result, retailers have been working alongside suppliers and manufacturers to support the Government’s Responsibility Deal, in addition to the initiatives outlined above.

11. ACS supports the Responsibility Deal; we believe that it is right in principle for Government, health experts and the trade to work together to achieve common objectives that reduce the harm of alcohol in society.

12. ACS has made several commitments:

to take forward the Community Alcohol Partnerships initiative. Having made the commitment we have since trebled our funding contribution and have been focused on helping the CAP initiative achieve its aims of rolling out more schemes across the UK; and in particular ensuring that CAPS involve the smallest businesses in their work.

to promote the “how many units in your drink” co-ordinated point of sale campaign to our members. The co-ordinated message is designed to achieve a similar awareness among consumers as the “Challenge 25” messaging, and was supported by the majority of symbol groups, representing over 15,000 stores nationwide.

to play our part in the industry commitment to remove one billion units of alcohol from the UK alcohol market by the end of 2015. This commitment was made by 10 companies that either run shops or supply shops in the convenience market.

13. We believe that the Deal is a strong basis for achieving outcomes. Given the focus on outcomes, it is in our view a quicker and more effective route to achieve change than policy or legislative intervention.

Minimum Unit Pricing and Multi-Buy Promotions Ban

14. The Prime Minister has made clear the Government’s position on minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol. We therefore expect MUP to be in force in England and Wales in the foreseeable future. ACS’ main concern is that these new rules are implemented in a way that is clear, consistent and legal.

15. Nonetheless ACS does not believe that evidence for MUP is conclusive. We are concerned about the view expressed in the Alcohol Strategy that MUP will have a significant impact on binge drinking and associated anti-social behaviour. Our understanding of the evidence employed by MUP advocates is that it is as a measure targeted at reducing alcohol consumption on a population-wide basis and as a consequence will bear down on the health harms associated with alcohol rather than anti-social behaviour issues primarily associated with 18–24 year old binge drinkers in the night time economy.

16. We are concerned that the introduction of MUP, especially if brought in at too high a cost, will have its biggest effect on the consumption behaviour of average responsible consumers. With alcohol less affordable, results are likely to be either:

(i)Responsible drinkers may consume the same amount but spend a higher proportion of their disposable income thereby affecting their quality of life and wider spending in retail; or

(ii)Responsible consumers may buy less alcohol, which has a negative consequence for businesses and jobs in all parts of the alcohol industry.

17. There are possible non-strategy related benefits to a policy of MUP. Small stores have suffered in competitive terms from the effects of the assertive discounting practices of the major supermarkets. The introduction of MUP may have the potential to shift consumers from buying large quantities of alcohol infrequently from the supermarket to more frequent purchases of smaller quantities and this could benefit smaller format stores. Any benefits, however, would be dependent on the level at which MUP was set and the mechanism chosen to implement it.

18. In addition to minimum unit pricing, the Government’s Alcohol Strategy also set out plans to introduce a ban on multi-buy promotions. A similar ban was introduced in Scotland and prohibits stores from selling a multi-pack of alcohol products for less than the value of each individual item. For example, if a can of lager cost £1.20, a four pack of the same lager in the same size containers could not cost less than £4.80.

19. ACS believes that this policy, if brought in in conjunction with MUP, would amount to an unnecessary additional burden on retailers. We believe the Committee should recommend that this proposal is removed for the following reasons:

MUP will have the effect of removing the types of multi-buy supermarket promotions that have been the particular focus of concern from the market, rendering this additional rule and associated bureaucracy superfluous.

Experience from Scotland shows that restricting promotions can actually make alcohol more affordable for problem drinkers. For example, rather than a person needing £12 to buy three bottles of wine, they can buy one for £4, when the actual single unit cost would have been £5.

For smaller businesses the use of promotional mechanics is an important way of communicating value to customers in a market dominated by large retailers.

Additional Measures to Tackle Alcohol Misuse

Licensing objectives

20. The Alcohol Strategy also includes proposals to introduce a new public health licensing objective to allow local authorities to take account of local density of premises and hours of sale. ACS has concerns over the introduction of this measure, in particular over the potential to restrict the number of alcohol licenses in the off trade on public health grounds.

21. A report published by Alcohol Concern in September 2011 titled “One on Every Corner” claimed there was a positive link between the density of off-licensed premises and harm from alcohol in underage drinkers. However, ACS believes the findings of this report are an unsound basis for Government policy, as the report failed to show any direct causal link between the density of off licences and the prevalence of harmful drinking amongst young people; the report excluded evidence gathered in London, which did not fit the conclusions drawn by the report; and study failed to take into account on-trade density. This assumes that alcohol harm is linked to off-trade only, rather than total provision of alcohol.

22. There is also no evidence to explain definitively the correlation between demand and the number of off trade licenses. It is just as likely that the number of off-licenses increases due to existing demand in an area, rather than being the reason for higher rates of consumption.

23. In addition to concerns over the evidence base, the introduction of this policy could lead to significant barriers to new entrants and investment in the sector, especially as a barrier to small businesses. If the number of licenses were to be restricted as a result of this policy, larger businesses are more likely to have the resources to meet any addition administrative or legal hurdles needed to obtain an alcohol license.

Additional licensing changes

24. Given the significant burden of new policy interventions already committed in the Alcohol Strategy, ACS urges the Committee not to recommend further measures that constitute a further burden on business.

25. The measures newly announced or reiterated in the Alcohol Strategy include:

The introduction of Early Morning Restriction Orders (EMROs) in October 2012—to enable local areas to restrict alcohol sales late at night if they are causing problems.

The introduction of a late night levy from October 2012—to allow local authorities to charge premises that sell alcohol after 12am.

More powers for Local Authorities to instigate a review of licenses or revoke them.

Extended powers to increase use of cumulative impact policies—to make it easier for Councils to refuse new licences on the grounds of over provision.

26. It is important that those involved in alcohol health-related policy are aware of these measures and the cumulative impact on retailers of all of the measures outlined in the Alcohol Strategy. ACS has made separate submissions to the Home Office on these measures, which we would be happy to make available.

Responsibility for Alcohol Policy within Government

27. The Committee’s call for evidence also raised a number of questions around overall responsibility and co-ordination of alcohol policy across. ACS engages with Home Office and Department of Health officials in relation to alcohol and licensing policy. The potential issues around the consumption and sale of alcohol clearly have significance for both public health and crime and disorder, so it is right that these two Departments are involved and work closely together on key issues.

28. ACS does not have a view on which department in Government should have an ascendency, but it is absolutely clear that policy must represent the balanced view of Government as a whole. This includes important considerations that fall within the remit of HM Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Education.

Coordination of Policy Across the UK with the Devolved Administrations

29. ACS would welcome a more joined up approach to the implementation of policy across the UK, where possible inconsistency between jurisdictions places a significant additional burden on businesses.

30. We recognise that there are differences in the challenges faced in different parts of the country, most notably between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. However, where decision makers in different jurisdictions are pursuing policies or legislation of very similar form they should work together as this has cross cutting economic benefits.

May 2012

1 Average taken from IGD Convenience Retailing 2011 – it is important to note that this percentage will vary significantly based on store location, business profile and other factors.

2 ACS Voice of Local Shops Survey May 2012.

3 Figures based on more than 20,000 ’tests’ carried out by Serve Legal

Prepared 21st July 2012