Minimum drinks pricing supporters slam drinks industry lobbying

PRWeek speaks to both sides on the alcohol pricing battle as the Alcohol Health Alliance lashes out at the drinks industry's 'high profile and well resourced' comms campaigns against minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol.

David Cameron: apparent U-turn on support for minimum unit pricing
David Cameron: apparent U-turn on support for minimum unit pricing

The AHA said it would continue to fight for MUP following widespread reports that the Government has made a U-turn on its plans to introduce a 45p MUP in the next Budget, due on Wednesday (20 March).

The AHA represents 30 organisations including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and charities such as Action on Addiction and Alcohol Concern.

An AHA spokesperson said: ‘The only opposing force that has emerged against minimum unit pricing in recent times has been a high-profile, well-funded campaign led by the global alcohol producers. This is a group with a well-resourced communications operation and a clear interest in prioritising profits over public health.’

Responding to the AHA, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs head Stephen Lotinga claimed that public health bodies had ‘lost sight of what they were trying to achieve; minimize harm, but in a fair way that doesn’t penalise responsible drinkers’.

Lotinga drafted the Liberal Democrats' policy in favour of MUP as part of the party’s health manifesto for the 2010 general election, and subsequently helped SAB Miller negotiate the issue with Government at Bell Pottinger.

‘Public health campaign bodies receive millions of pounds of funding with the aim to reduce drinking. The primary purpose is lobbying Government on policy. It is not the drinks industry's primary purpose and it is just responding to the well resourced campaigns paid for by taxpayers' money,’ he said.

The comms activity of the alliance is co-ordinated across member organisations' comms teams and does not employ any agency for specific comms on the issue. The individual organisations that make up the AHA have met with a number of MPs and civil servants, said the spokesperson, and have raised the case for MUP through the media for a number of years as well as submitting a formal response to the Government’s alcohol strategy.

‘Working with a negligible campaign budget poses a number of obvious challenges, but we have the advantage of expertise. Everything we do is underpinned by clear evidence,’ said the spokesperson.

Chairman of the AHA Sir Ian Gilmore and other campaigners for MUP, including Conservative MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston, have made a number of high-profile media appearances speaking out against the Government’s apparent U-turn.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) has led activity on the issue on behalf of its members, which include many of the UK’s biggest retailers and drink producers. It said it would stick to its comms strategy opposing MUP until a formal statement is made on the issue by the Government.

It launched its first consumer-facing comms campaign in February, opposing the policy with the theme 'Why should we pay more?'. The six-month effort, handled by Tetra Strategy and Beige, will continue, according to the WSTA.

Ketchum head of public affairs Jo-Ann Robertson, who does not act for either side, praised opponents of MUP’s strong campaigning activity but warned that even if reports of a U-turn were correct, the issue was far from over for either side or the Government.

‘Effective public affairs is about constructing a compelling argument, backed up by facts, and delivered in a convincing way. The drinks industry nailed it on this occasion. There has been no evidence presented by the pro-minimum pricing lobby that proves their approach would have the desired outcomes.

‘Of course, the debate doesn’t end here – Cameron will still be under pressure to tackle the supermarkets and convenience stores’ reliance on heavily discounted alcohol. There are many more lobbying hours to come on this campaign.’

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