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Last updated: March 15, 2011 5:03 am
Seven of Britain’s biggest food retailers are to sign up to a new “responsibility deal” on food and alcohol promotion. However, the health lobby has walked away from the agreement, claiming it plays into industry hands.
The deal, due to be announced this week, aimed to bring together the health lobby, drinks industry and government to reduce alcohol abuse. A parallel deal on healthier eating was similarly dismissed by non-governmental organisations as being unduly influenced by the food industry.
“This is the worst possible deal for everyone who wants to see alcohol harm reduced,” said Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, one of six health groups to pull out of the new responsibility agreement.
“There are no firm targets or any sanctions if the drinks industry fails to fulfil its pledges. It’s all carrot and no stick for the drinks industry and supermarkets.”
The British Retail Consortium said Asda, Marks and Spencer, Wm Morrison, J Sainsbury, Tesco, the Co-op and Waitrose had signed up to what it described as a “significant development” that would “help promote healthy eating and drinking habits”.
Their decision showed that “the retail sector takes its responsibilities seriously”, the BRC said, adding that the next step “must be more involvement from other sectors such as manufacturing and catering”.
For its part, the government says the deal is just part of broader efforts to curb alcohol abuse. These include the Treasury’s introduction of a new tax on super-strength beers and ban on below cost sales of alcohol and a review of licensing laws by the Home Office.
Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, claimed “the responsibility deal has achieved more in the last six months than the previous government’s Coalition for Better Health did in a year and a half”.
“We made clear from the start that the responsibility deal is just one strand of the government’s wide public health policy,” said Mr Lansley said.
“The responsibility deal is working with the industry on voluntary agreements to get speedier results. For example, to improve unit labelling. The responsibility deal has achieved more in the last six months than the previous government’s Coalition for Better Health did in a year and a half. What is more, this is only the first step”.
Mr Shenker, however, says more could have been done on areas like advertising. With the backing of other health groups, he proposed measures including health warnings on all ads, a move he says which Department of Health assessments show to be both effective and inexpensive.
These proposals, he says, were never discussed as meetings were over before there they could be discussed. “When I saw the final pledges with a letter from Andrew Lansley asking us to sign up, none of our proposals were on it,” he says.
The government points out that, in addition to the formal pledges, drinks companies and retailers are themselves taking steps to curb irresponsible drinking. Heineken, the brewer, is developing a lower strength version of one of its major brands, for example. And Asda will remove alcohol sales and promotion from its foyer areas from May, the retailer said.
Asda said the move follows similarly-intentioned steps such as stopping sales of alcohol in around 100 shops close to city centres between midnight and 6am in a bid to prevent those spilling out of pubs and clubs from buying “top-ups”.
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