Conflict of interest in alcohol plan

Alcohol Concern has attacked as "extraordinary" the Government's proposal to hand the lead role in tackling binge drinking to a lobbying group set up and funded by the drinks industry.

The plan, contained in last week's public health White Paper, states that the Department of Health will "work in partnership with the Portman Group to develop a new and strengthened information campaign to tackle the problems of binge drinking".

Richard Phillips, acting chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said the charity would be seeking a meeting with the department to express its alarm. He said that industry-funded lobbyists have a part to play in reducing alcohol-related harm, but their main role should be industry-facing.

He said they should focus on trying to get the industry to crack down on problems such as retailers selling alcohol to minors and advertisers marketing their products irresponsibly.

A much broader group should be constituted to develop public health campaigns, said Phillips, comprising charities, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Psychiatrists, public health specialists and researchers, as well as the Portman Group,

"We broadly welcome the public health White Paper, but singling out the Portman Group is deeply worrying because there is a clear conflict of interest there," he said. "The drinks industry makes its profits by selling drinks, and the best way to reduce harm caused by alcohol is to get people to drink less. So the idea that the industry should be entrusted with that task is extraordinary."

A Portman Group spokesman denied any conflict of interest. "We share Alcohol Concern's interest in reducing harm from alcohol misuse and we have been promoting responsible drinking for 15 years."

Phillips also disapproved of the recent appointment by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell of the Portman Group chief executive Jean Coussins to the board of the Alcohol Education and Research Council.

"The industry should not be involved in shaping where research money goes when that research may be critical of the industry," he said.

"This is effectively a government appointment and shows how close the industry is to government. Which begs the question - how close is too close?"

The White Paper also promised more campaigns with charities such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Age Concern - an indication of the success of previous government-funded initiatives by those charities that encourage people to quit smoking and have flu jabs.

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