Trade bodies, public health specialists and licensing experts have all waded in to take positions in the debate over health and licensing after a select committee meeting at the House of Lords this month (November).
The committee – which is investigating the effectiveness of the Licensing Act 2003 – heard from Police & Crime Commissioner for Devon & Cornwall Alison Hernandez, who suggested that making people aware of the health dangers of booze should fall to licensees, who should be denied a licence if they fail in that responsibility.
Hernandez suggested the approach to labels on cigarette packets – warning consumers of the effects of smoking – could work for drinkers, warning them about the impact drinking could have on their health.
She said: “It might be ‘this is the amount of calories you are taking in’.”
Lord Davies of Stamford countered by questioning how operators could make this work, and British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) chief executive Brigid Simmonds backed that stance.
She said it wasn’t common sense to recommend that licensing be used to promote overall health objectives, and suggested it opened up a can of worms on issues surrounding licensing objectives and how the trade, as a whole, can tackle that thorny matter.
Not the same as cigarettes
Emma Harvey, licensee of the Wheatsheaf Inn, No Man’s Heath, Cheshire, says operators should not be held accountable for people’s drinking but supports drinks being labelled.
She says: “I support more information on packets, like the warnings seen on cigarettes, but alcohol is also very different to cigarettes and shouldn’t be classified in the same way.
“Cigarettes were generally glamorized until they banned tobacco advertising, despite the health risks.
“Whereas with alcohol, all the way back to black and white movies, there has always been an old drunk or the irrational drunk and it has never been seen as what the cool kids do.
“It would be no different really to listing allergens on food menus. It would be possible with a bit of preparation as more information gives more power to people.”
Harvey points to her pub’s policy on health and drinking: “I have a calorie wheel on the back bar, which shows how many calories are in each drink, which I show people, but that really just points people to drinking spirits.
“Units is more relevant as I don’t think that calorie awareness is the way to go with alcohol awareness at all.
“This industry is a hospitality industry and, therefore, we already have our customers’ needs and wellbeing at the core of what we do.”
The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) chief executive Kate Nicholls points to an industry-wide approach in how the trade is aiding the Government in a bid to deal with health.
She says: “The licensed hospitality sector is already playing its part in helping the Government to address a range of health-related issues through the Responsibility Deal, both collectively and individually, as well as ensuring appropriate and relevant information is provided to customers.
“Calorie labelling can also be extremely difficult and challenging for any business serving cocktails and mixed drinks, where it may be unfeasible to accurately keep track of calories.
“Even for those businesses that are selling a reasonably standard product, there may be variations and the cost of tracking, measuring and quantifying the calories per drink can be prohibitive and unworkable in practice."
Nicholls also worries about food-led outlets and how they could be affected by ‘menu labelling’: “It adds complexity and costs for businesses that are already facing tightening margins, and rising wage and property costs.
“With no evidence to suggest that this move would lead to considerable change in drinking habits, it would be a hugely unwelcome additional burden for businesses.”
Head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Chris Snowden says: “I think the problem is that it is axiomatic in the world of public health that alcohol harm is directly linked to alcohol availability.
“If public health is a specific licensing objective, any attempt to open a new premises is likely to be opposed.”
Simmonds says that although the suggestion of making public health a licensing objective had been looked at for quite some time, the Government had not taken forward the idea, and for very good reasons.
She adds: “Powers under the licensing regime are rightly focused on dealing with issues in and around specific premises, such as public nuisance, crime and public safety.
“The licensing system is, therefore, far too specific a tool to be effective in promoting wider public health objectives.
“This is best done through targeted campaigns and public awareness, where the industry is very active, through campaigns such as Drinkaware, in partnership with others and at company level.
“As well as raising awareness, our members also actively work to ensure customers have choices when it comes to lower calorie and lower alcohol drink options.
"We’ve also seen initiatives such as reducing the strength of house wines for example, and reducing the ABV of some beers.
“The licensing regime can’t be used effectively for a purpose for which it wasn’t intended; effective licensing is really about dealing with issues arising from alcohol sales on and around the premises.
"And, of course, it is worth remembering that 70% of alcohol is sold in the off-trade, these days.”
Night Time Industries Association chairman Alan Miller completely disagrees with the prospect of wellbeing being added to the Licensing Act.
He says: “Already the four licensing objectives cover key areas – with lots of room for interpretation that often detrimentally impacts premises.
“The category of wellbeing is so broad and can mean so many different things that it would be an utter hindrance.”
Poppleston Allen licensing specialist Andy Grimsey gives the legal stance on the issue: “There are great difficulties in imagining adding public health as a fifth licensing objective – a point that had also been made by trade bodies, lawyers and others at the evidence sessions before the House of Lords select committee.
“The issue comes down to this – there is, if you like, a ‘golden thread’ running through licensing law that an application should be treated on its own merits and licensees should not be held responsible for issues beyond their control.
“But data relating to alcohol harm tends to be statistical in nature and generally or regionally based rather than premises-based. How then can a licensee ever argue against it?"
Changes could ‘damage’ pubs
CPL Training director and head of compliance Paul Chase previously questioned whether there should be a health licensing objective following the publication of a Modern Crime Prevention Strategy earlier this year.
He welcomed the fact the Government hasn’t published a new, stand-alone Alcohol Strategy to replace the one published in 2012.
He also welcomed the Government’s decision at the time, not to add a ‘health’ licensing objective, but pointed out that local authorities would be disappointed with that decision, as the responsibility for health and wellbeing lay with them.
Earlier this year (August), the BBPA claimed Camden Council’s proposed changes to its licensing policy would ‘damage local pub businesses’. Camden said it intended to make public health its own consideration in licensing decisions.
The BBPA argued that this was not what the Licensing Act 2003 was meant to be for, and it contradicted previous government decisions.
BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds says she hopes Camden listens to the concerns.
She says its draft policy was too specific to be effective in promoting wider public health objectives.
The Local Government Association says councils want to help people live healthier lives and tackle the harm caused by excessive drinking.
A spokesperson for the local authority think-tank says: "It is accepted that local health bodies have a role to play in the licensing process, yet there is no scope for them to make representations on health grounds. This is an anomaly that should be amended.
“Adding a public health objective to the Licensing Act would give councils greater flexibility to consider how they can balance the current range of licensing objectives with the recognised health impacts of drinking.
“Obviously, councils are not seeking powers to refuse every application – the social benefits of moderate drinking are well documented – but it would certainly allow them to take a more balanced view in line with their other priorities such as creating vibrant and safe town centres and protecting people from harm."
The industry also hit out at the guidelines of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dame Sally Davies.
These guidelines, issued in the summer, outlined the risks of alcohol consumption, claiming there was ‘no safe level of drinking’.
The CMO also released an additional introductory text to the guidelines, which stated the intention was not to “prevent those who want to drink alcohol from doing so”.
The report read: “This advice on regular drinking is based on the evidence that if people drink at or above the low-risk level advised, overall, any protective effect from alcohol on deaths is cancelled out and the risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition would then be expected to be at least 1% over a lifetime.
“This level of risk is comparable to those posed by other everyday activities that people understand are not completely safe yet still undertake.”
The IEA’s Snowden says: “The public health view of alcohol was best expressed by the CMO when she claimed that there is ‘no safe level of drinking’.
“Not all public health directors are quite so dogmatic, but they all think we should be drinking less.
“Given the power, they will use licensing laws to make it more expensive and less easy to obtain alcohol. That is not what licensing laws are designed for.”