Alcohol companies push back against UK health warnings

Group formed in response to government’s revamp of drinking guidelines

By Saabira Chaudhuri/ Wall Street Journal

The Alcohol Information Partnership has been formed in response to new UK guidelines suggesting men and women cap their drinking at the same amount and warning that there is no safe level of drinking The world’s biggest alcohol companies have banded together to fight British government warnings about the dangers of drinking, funding a group dedicated to ensuring “the debate in UK society around alcohol and alcohol misuse remains balanced.”

The formation of the group, called the Alcohol Information Partnership, comes after the UK recently revamped its alcohol guidelines, suggesting men and women cap their drinking at the same amount and warning that there is no safe level of drinking. The alcohol industry has taken particular issue with the no-safe-level declaration.

“The debate has become increasingly imbalanced and characterized by poor representation of the evidence,” said Dave Roberts, director-general of the new partnership. “Too often the facts have been dramatized or exaggerated in order to scare people and skew the debate.”

Mr. Roberts, who is the founder of a UK-based communications consultancy and worked as an aide for former Labour Party economic spokesman Edward Balls, describes himself on his LinkedIn page as having a “proven track record of success working with leading organizations and global brands, in controversial arenas.” The new group is being funded by Diageo PLC, Pernod Ricard SA, Bacardi Ltd., Brown-Forman Corp., LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, Rémy Cointreau SA, Davide Campari-Milano SpA and Beam Suntory Inc.

The partnership won’t publish any research itself but plans to critique research it sees as unjustifiably skewed against alcohol. It also intends to highlight positive changes to drinking patterns in regularly released government data. While the London-based Wine and Spirits Trade Association already performs these functions, the new group will be solely focused on the debate around alcohol misuse. “We want to make sure the positive stories out there are heard,” said a spokeswoman for Diageo. Mr. Roberts said binge drinking is declining in the UK and that the “vast majority of people enjoy a drink responsibly.”

Alcohol bottles in the UK carry the old guidelines for now, recommending a maximum intake of three to four units a day for men, and two to three for women. The new guidelines recommend both men and women restrict their alcohol intake to no more than 14 units a week, equivalent to about six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine. Companies plan to meet with the UK Department of Health before deciding whether and how changes will be made. Labelling is a voluntary exercise, although most companies include the guidelines on their packages.

Pernod Ricard told reporters in London that it would consider moving all information about the guidelines off its bottles and onto a website. “A bold, blunt statement still remains within those guidelines which says, however, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption,” said Denis O’Flynn, Pernod’s UK managing director. “We don’t accept that position, so therefore, in that regard, we’re going to have to consider how we communicate with consumers.”