Documents show 130 meetings with Department of Health alone and suggest minimum pricing consultation was a sham
A BMJ investigation today reveals the "extraordinary level of access" granted by the government to the alcohol industry as it fought successfully last year to kill off a minimum unit pricing policy in England and Wales.
It paints a vivid picture of a political class both dependent on and keen to fraternise with drinks companies – and suggests a fundamental reluctance by the government to hamper an industry that claims credit for millions of jobs and billions of pounds of income for the Treasury.
In an open letter also published today, senior doctors and health campaigners say this new information "serves to fuel fears that big business is trumping public health concerns in Westminster" and they urge the government to "stop dancing to the tune of the drinks industry and prioritise the health of the public."
When the government published its Alcohol Strategy in March 2012, it pledged to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and Wales. All that remained was to fix the level at which the price per unit would be set. At 40p, said Prime Minister David Cameron, it would prevent more than 900 alcohol-related deaths a year.
But just over a year later, this policy was as good as dead, the victim of an intensive lobbying campaign by an industry happy to continue making soft social pledges under the controversial Responsibility Deal but determined to veto a public health regulation that might hit profits.
The BMJ has discovered that since the Coalition took power in May 2010, the Department of Health alone has had at least 130 meetings with representatives of the alcohol industry, very few of which have been publicly documented, despite a transparency initiative launched by David Cameron that same year.
These include a meeting on 12 February 2013 – six days after the close of the government's consultation on the level at which minimum pricing should be set – between public health minister Anna Soubry and alcohol industry representatives to discuss their "deep concern" about the impending regulation.
And in April 2013 – three months after the consultation had closed and at a time when the public health community believed minimum pricing was going ahead as promised – senior executives from supermarket group Asda met with Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, to discuss alternative measures that would not "represent a significant additional burden on our customers".
The government announced its U-turn on 17 July 2013. Instead of minimum unit pricing, it said, it would ban the sale of alcohol at below-cost price – the very measure that had been sought by industry and which has been dismissed by health experts as an ineffectual gesture.
The decision was "absolutely shameful", said Dr Sarah Wollaston, a GP and Conservative MP who has campaigned extensively for the introduction of minimum pricing. "We have government telling doctors that one of their key responsibilities is to cut avoidable mortality and yet they are stepping away from giving them the key tool that will make a difference, which I think is outrageous. The influence of industry is too great."
The BMJ has also examined the activities of three all-party parliamentary groups that exist to support the beer, spirits and wine industries and discovered evidence of their extensive involvement with the alcohol sector.
Current records show that the beer group, to which 300 MPs (46%) and 100 members of the House of Lords belong, received £40,000 in donations from eight companies, including Heineken, Greene King, Diageo, and Molson Coors last year.
The All-Party Scotch Whisky and Spirits Group declares no funding or other benefits received from outside sources, but its secretariat and other services are provided by the Scotch Whisky Association, which is implacably opposed to minimum pricing.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser on alcohol to the Royal College of Physicians and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK says: "The drinks industry continues to have high-level access to Government ministers and officials while no forum currently exists for the public health community to put forward its case in an environment free from vested interests."
"With deaths from liver disease rapidly rising and teenagers now presenting with advanced liver failure, the Government has a duty to realise its commitment to introduce minimum pricing."