Government warns of drinks crackdownDrinks industry failing to meet its own standards

23 July 2008

A woman drinking from a glass

Don't drink too much on the first date

The government has promised tougher action against the alcohol industry unless it steps up efforts to encourage sensible drinking.

Research has shown the drinks trade is failing to adhere to its own voluntary code on providing alcohol unit information to consumers.

More than 10 years after industry and the government agreed a way forward for clearer labelling, only 57% of products contain details of the alcohol units in a drink.

Happy hour

Meanwhile, just 3% of products contain all the information ministers want to see, including a warning to pregnant women to avoid alcohol.

The government is considering banning happy hours, forcing pubs and clubs to serve drinks in smaller glasses as well as larger ones, and stopping off-licences and other retailers from displaying alcohol at checkouts.

An investigation by Which?, published this month, found that a small glass of wine - a 125ml measure - has all but disappeared from pubs and bars. In May, we asked major pub chains about their policy on serving a small glass of wine, and their answers are below.

Glass size

We found that supersize measures of 175ml and even 250ml - which is a third of a bottle of wine -  have become the norm. The industry told us that customer demand was dictating glass size. 

Who serves a small measure?
Pub owner Do you serve 125ml glasses of wine?
Greene King (Chains include Belhaven and Hungry Horse) Sometimes — there's no standard practice. Sizes range from 125ml to 250ml.
Mitchells & Butlers (Chains include Ember, O'Neill's and Scream) No. Only 175ml and 250ml (but sparkling wine and champagne served in 125ml glasses).
Marstons (Chains include Pitcher & Piano) No. Only 175ml and 250ml.
JD Wetherspoon (Chains include Lloyds No1 Bar) No. Only 175ml and 250ml.
Enterprise Inns, Admiral Taverns, Trust Inns Decision up to individual landlord.

Table notes

Punch Taverns, Wellington Pub Co and Frederic Robinson would not comment

 

Liz Edwards, Head of News at Which?, said: 'Our investigation showed how hard it is to get a smaller glass of wine if you want one. The move to supersizing cuts customer choice, and means you could unknowingly be over the drink-drive limit.

'We welcome the government's proposals to increase the amount of choice and information available to consumers when buying a drink.'

Higher prices

Industry representatives reacted to the government's announcement by saying existing laws around the sale of alcohol were not currently enforced and argued that the government's strategy would result in higher prices for sensible drinkers.

The promise of a crackdown unless the industry improves comes after figures showed the annual cost to the NHS of drinking now tops £2.7bn a year.

This includes more than £1bn spent on treating people in hospital due to alcohol, £372m on ambulance journeys and £646 million on A&E visits.

Drinkers

The total cost has jumped around £1bn since figures were last compiled in 2003.

Other data also showed that more than 2.6 million men and women regularly drink at least the equivalent of 20 pints of bitter a week.

In England, almost 1.6 million men are considered 'high risk' drinkers, downing more than 50 units of alcohol a week, and so are more than a million women, who are drinking more than 35 units a week.

Limits

Around 10 million people in England drink more than the government's recommended limits, which are no more than two to three units a day for women and three to four for men.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo, who launched a consultation on the way forward, said it was 'disappointing' the industry had not adhered to the voluntary code.

But she said there was no evidence that changes in licensing laws, which allow pubs and clubs to open 24 hours, have had an impact on alcohol consumption.

Alcohol misuse

Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said: 'The government's latest strategy document is simply pointing the way to higher prices for all responsible drinkers without solving the problem of alcohol misuse.

'Culture change will take time but we should start by enforcing the numerous laws we have and build on the education and information programmes acknowledged as successful by government.

'The drinks industry is demonstrating its commitment to change with programmes such as Challenge 21, Community Alcohol Partnerships and unit awareness campaigns. Let's tackle the real reasons why some people misuse alcohol not make the rest of us pay the price.'

Deadline

The drinks industry has been given until the end of the year to put the required warnings on bottles and cans.

If that fails, ministers plan to introduce new laws governing the sale of alcohol.

A separate review is being carried out by experts at Sheffield University on the link between pricing and promotions and alcohol use.

Interim findings said there was 'strong and consistent evidence to suggest that price increases and taxation have a significant effect in reducing demand for alcohol'.

It went on: 'There is strong evidence to suggest that young drinkers, binge-drinkers and harmful drinkers tend to choose cheaper drinks.'