A BMJ investigation today reveals the “extraordinary level of access” granted by the government to the alcohol industry as it fought successfully last year to kill off a minimum unit pricing policy in England and Wales.
Freedom of information requests have uncovered evidence of at least 130 meetings between industry representatives and the Department of Health alone, in some of which alcohol companies were encouraged to argue the case for alternatives to minimum pricing even after the policy had apparently been set in stone.
In an open letter also published today, senior doctors and health campaigners say this new information “serves to fuel fears that big business is trumping public health concerns in Westminster” and they urge the government to “stop dancing to the tune of the drinks industry and prioritise the health of the public.”
When the government published its Alcohol Strategy in March 2012, it pledged to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and Wales. All that remained was to fix the level at which the price per unit would be set. At 40p, said Prime Minister David Cameron, it would prevent more than 900 alcohol-related deaths a year.
But, the BMJ report points out, “just over a year later, this policy was as good as dead, the victim of an intensive lobbying campaign by an industry happy to continue making soft social pledges under the controversial Responsibility Deal but determined to veto a public health regulation that might hit profits”.
These include a meeting on 12 February 2013 – six days after the close of the government’s consultation on the level at which minimum pricing should be set – between public health minister Anna Soubry and alcohol industry representatives to discuss their “deep concern” about the impending regulation.
And in April 2013 – three months after the consultation had closed and at a time when the public health community believed minimum pricing was going ahead as promised – senior executives from supermarket group Asda met with Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, to discuss alternative measures that would not “represent a significant additional burden on our customers”.
The government announced its U-turn on 17 July 2013. Instead of minimum unit pricing, it said, it would ban the sale of alcohol at below-cost price – the very measure that had been sought by industry and which has been dismissed by health experts as an ineffectual gesture.