Problem drinking on Labour agenda
Monday 23rd September 2013, 11:31AM BST.
Britain needs to “reassess our relationship with alcohol”, Andy Burnham has warned as campaigners called on Labour to back minimum unit pricing to tackle problem drinking.
Mr Burnham said the Opposition was supportive “in principle” of the measure – which has been dropped by the Government – but conceded it would be a challenge to win public backing.
Ex-Tony Blair spin doctor Alastair Campbell said that behind the scenes the party was engaged in a debate about whether it would be better to use tax hikes instead.
One recent study suggested targeting the duty on some high-strength drinks would be more effective in dealing with the worst cases of alcoholism – and raise more money for the Treasury.
The pair spoke a t a conference fringe event held by Alcohol Concern which saw them join party-supporting comedian Eddie Izzard and others for a morning run on Brighton beach.
Alcohol Concern wants a minimum unit price of at least 50p and a boost in the proportion of problem drinkers getting treatment – from 6%, which is far below other countries – to 15%.
Mr Burnham said the Government’s U-turn on pricing – as well as plain cigarette packaging – had left public health policy “in the wilderness”.
“I am in principle committed to a form of minimum unit pricing. There are ways you can do it constructed so you really get to the heart of the problem.
“It is that trick of doing something that carries the country with you. I don’t think it would help those who want to see policy advance in this area if there was a backlash.
“But I think we can do that.”
He said MPs were more “hesitant” over legislating on alcohol unlike something like smoking, because ” I don’t think most of us are non-drinkers”.
“But you only have to look at the statistics to see we cannot carry on as we are. We have to reassess our relationship with alcohol as a country.”
Mr Campbell, who has himself suffered from a drink problem and whose new novel tackles the subject, urged politicians to be bold.
“It’s very hard for a politician to be a killjoy and it’s very difficult for a politician to say, in these difficult, often miserable times, we’re going to take away things that you really, really like.
“But at some point you have to reach a conclusion about the cost of not doing something.
“Russia had an incredible problem with alcohol and they’ve really done some amazing things,” he said – including an all-out ban on booze advertising.
Mr Campbell stopped short of directly advocating a similar move in the UK, though he noted: “Well I don’t think it’s harmed the country in relation to smoking.”
But he did renew his attack on alcohol sponsorship of sport – taking a particular swipe at the FA.
“When England played Moldova the other day, h ow many children watched on television and saw around the pitch ‘Carlsberg: official beer of the England team’?
“Not official sponsor of the FA but official beer of the England team. So like ‘after they’ve finished today, Wayne Rooney is going to get absolutely pissed on Carlsberg, children’.
“In one recent study, kids were shown loads of different brands and advertising and they identified ten different alcohol brands before anything to do with toys, cakes or sweets.
“So the idea that kids are not being bombarded with this stuff is absurd.”
He said that while he was at Number 10 with Mr Blair, the government held off introducing a smoking ban until it had seen how one worked in Ireland.
“Up until that point we’d actually been a bit scared.
“I think it will be the same with alcohol. There will be a lot of opposition, the industry will fight it, a lot of people will say you are punishing the poor and blah, blah, blah.
“We have got to win those arguments and fight through it and then eventually people will say ‘you know we’re a healthier country and that’s better for us’.”
Asked if he was confident Labour were committed, he said: “They are having a debate about whether they do it through minimum unit pricing or whether it is through the taxation system.
“But Andy is definitely on the side of the angels on that one.”
Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: “We thought we were moving forward with a more comprehensive strategy last year when the Government published an alcohol strategy.
“Since then David Cameron, who we thought got it, clearly didn’t because he backed off in the face of political pressure and pressure from the very powerful alcohol industry.
“We are hoping to Labour Party gets it.”