Minimum pricing: Drinks industry 'distorted evidence'

Cut-price alcohol
Image caption The Scottish Parliament has voted to set a 50p minimum price for a unit of alcohol

The alcohol industry has been accused of distorting evidence in an attempt to influence the Scottish government over its minimum pricing policy.

Academics examined submissions made by the industry to the government's public consultation in 2008.

They said their research suggested the responses had "ignored, misrepresented and undermined" scientific evidence.

The Portman Group, which campaigns for the drinks industry on social responsibility, strongly disputed this.

The Scottish government's public consultation had looked at policy proposals aimed at introducing minimum unit pricing and ending drinks promotions including below-cost selling of alcoholic drinks.

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Media captionDr Jim McCambridge: "Here, we see the alcohol industry behaving exactly like the tobacco industry."

The proposals were widely supported by health professionals and the police, but were opposed by large sections of the alcohol industry, including supermarkets, drinks companies, and trade associations.

The team of three researchers, led by Dr Jim McCambridge at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said many submissions from the industry were critical of the evidence used by the government to justify the policy.

But the industry failed to provide any strong evidence of its own, the report said, and instead relied on "unsubstantiated claims" and "weak evidence" such as opinion polls, to justify its opposition.

The report pointed to an assertion made by the Portman Group that "there is a raft of contradictory evidence of the influence of price and promotions on harm. In the absence of strong evidence, it seems imprudent to tackle alcohol misuse by acting against price and promotions''.

However, no details of any contradictory evidence were provided by Portman or in any of the other industry submissions, it said.

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Media captionAlex Neil: "I think some people in the drinks industry face the serious possibility of destroying their own credibility."

The report, which was funded by the charity Alcohol Research UK, stated: "The Portman Group made unsubstantiated claims that the proposals could "increase the appeal of alcohol to young people by creating a 'mystique'" and thereby "turning alcohol into a 'forbidden fruit'".

"They also claimed that the approach taken by the Scottish government had been "widely discredited in research studies" when in fact there is broad consensus among researchers, who strongly support the approach as the correct one."

Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "We'll study the report very carefully indeed. I think not just the Scottish government but the Scottish parliament will have something to say if they have been deliberately misled by anybody."

Trade rules

The researchers said Tesco criticised the data supporting the Scottish government's proposals, and had claimed there was "little in the way of evidence" to support the impact of price on consumption.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association heavily promoted "weak evidence" in their submission by citing a small community trial which lacked thorough data, the academics said.

And the study accused Asda of making "unsubstantiated claims" about the adverse effects of the policy proposals, which the supermarket chain said would "create incentives for the black market and criminals and illegal door to door sales."

It also said some drinks firms had claimed marketing activities contributed to harm reduction when they were actually directed towards increased sales and thus greater consumption.

For example, Diageo stated that it ''uses brand sponsorships to raise awareness of responsible drinking, including Guinness's sponsorship of the Rugby Premiership".

Dr McCambridge said: "Our study showed that the alcohol industry, including both the producers and the big supermarkets, consistently oppose affective approaches to alcohol polices by misrepresenting strong evidence of what works. There is an international consensus in the research community that the approach of the Scottish government is the correct one.

"This study shows the alcohol industry in its true colours. It claimed in the submissions it made to be supporting evidence based approaches to policies, but did anything but that in practice.

"The conflict of interest they have is really stark in these documents. It is clear that effective alcohol policies benefit society and cost the industry because they reduce overall consumption.

"Here we see the alcohol industry behaving exactly like the tobacco industry. Both the alcohol and tobacco industries end up killing quite a proportion of their customers, so it is not surprising that they are prepared to behave in exactly the same way.

"These tactics mean it is harder for governments to make evidence-based policy where industry is involved. The public interest is not served by the alcohol industry's misinterpretation of research evidence and we must consider to what extent we should allow the health of the population to be compromised by these commercial interests."

In a strongly-worded statement the Portman Group said its response to the 2008 Scottish government consultation had been published on its website for almost five years.

"The whole point of a consultation is to invite a range of views to inform government policy," said a spokeswoman.

"We say that public policy should focus on tackling the irresponsible elements of our drinking culture and not penalise the majority of moderate, responsible drinkers who are doing the right thing.

"Better education, early interventions to support problem drinkers and enforcing existing laws are more targeted ways to do this than introducing population-wide controls."

MSPs passed The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 in May 2012, setting a 50p minimum unit price as part of an effort to tackle alcohol misuse.

However, the government has undertaken not to introduce the measures until after the conclusion of a challenge brought at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and several European wine and spirits bodies.

They argue that it breaches EU trade rules.

'Discredit themselves'

Mr Neil will be in Brussels on Wednesday to lay out the government's case for alcohol price controls.

His visit coincides with new research which demonstrates that significant health benefits were observed when minimum alcohol prices in British Columbia were increased.

Mr Neil told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "I think some people in the drinks industry face the serious possibility of destroying their own credibility.

"These are very robust reports, they're done to the highest international standards of academic research and this latest report today from Canada shows - without doubt - there's almost a one for one correlation between the increase in price for alcohol and the reduction in consumption, and with the benefits which go with that in terms of far fewer hospital admissions, far fewer incidents of liver disease, far fewer crime incidents caused by drink.

"If the people in the alcohol industry are just discrediting anything that comes out no matter how good it is what they do is actually discredit themselves."

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