The UK government’s alcohol policies are weaker than those implemented by the devolved nations, a landmark report from ScHARR and the University of Stirling has found.
Alcohol policies across the four UK nations vary widely in the extent to which they are grounded in scientific evidence, with political considerations appearing to have significant bearing, the research shows.
Policies from the UK government and devolved administrations were reviewed against recommendations from Health First, the independent expert-devised UK alcohol strategy, in the first such audit of its kind. Overall strategy, pricing, marketing and availability of alcohol were amongst the areas examined.
Scotland had the strongest approach overall, seeking to implement the most evidence-based policies, working to clear outcomes, and with a taskforce in place to monitor and evaluate the Scottish government’s alcohol strategy.
By contrast, the UK government did not support the most effective policies, made inconsistent use of evidence, and was the most engaged with the alcohol industry.
While Wales and Northern Ireland took strong positions in areas such as taxation and restrictions on young drivers, they have fewer legislative powers than the Scottish Parliament.
The report was co-authored by Dr Niamh Fitzgerald at the University of Stirling and Colin Angus at the ScHARR.
Colin Angus, from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, said: “A clear illustration of the gap in effective policy across the UK relates to the marketing of alcohol. The devolved administrations have indicated support for mandatory action on product labelling, but the UK government has favoured self-regulation which has proven ineffective, with over 40 percent of products on the shelf still failing to meet the industry’s own best practice guidelines.
“On alcohol advertising, a reserved matter, the devolved administrations have called for stronger regulation to protect children, but this approach has been rejected by the former UK coalition government. The Scottish government is currently updating its alcohol strategy while the other devolved nations continue to progress evidence-based policies to reduce alcohol harms. It may be that they will call for greater powers to go it alone in bringing in effective policy options, if Westminster is not prepared to act.”
Dr Niamh Fitzgerald, Lecturer in Alcohol Studies, said: “Alcohol policy at UK government level is in disarray, with it choosing to reduce taxation despite evidence that consumption and alcohol-related harms will increase as a result, putting even greater pressure on NHS and emergency services.
“In contrast to the UK government, the devolved administrations – especially Scotland – are taking steps to address the widespread harms due to alcohol, recognising that they are a ‘whole population’ issue. All four nations, however, engage in partnership with the alcohol industry, despite clear conflicts of interest and its history of failure to support those policies most likely to work.”
Peter O’Neill, Evidence Exchange Manager at the Alliance for Useful Evidence, which commissioned the report, said: “Devolution in the UK provides opportunities for exchange of evidence and learning about what works through experimentation with different policies across the four nations. This report calls on administrations to support such learning, by engaging openly and maturely with the alcohol policy evidence, being honest about reasons for policy decisions, and robustly evaluating policy initiatives. Unfortunately, the report also suggests that alcohol policy may sometimes be underpinned by ideology more than by evidence, and is likely to be less effective as a result.”
Four Nations: How Evidence-based are Alcohol Policies and Programmes Across the UK? has been presented to representatives of the four administrations as part of the work of the British-Irish Council, which meets later this month.