Big Alcohol benefits from higher-risk alcohol use
43.4% of all revenue the alcohol industry earns in the UK comes from higher risk alcohol consumption – i.e. alcohol intake exceeding the government’s low-risk alcohol use guidelines of 14 units a week.
The alcohol industry makes £11.2 billion from this higher risk volume of alcohol intake.
This is one of the key findings from a new report by public health organisations and the economics consultancy Landman Economics. The figures prompted a coalition of health, medical and children rights organisations to demand more government action to protect the British people from “the irresponsible behaviour of health-harming industries”.
The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in partnership with Landman Economics conducted the research together.
Big Alcohol and other health harmful industries profit from harmful products
Three health harmful industries are earning £52.7 billion a year from UK sales of tobacco, junk food and alcohol.
The products and practices of Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco, and Big Junk Food are contributing to Britain’s rising burden of disease and death, The Guardian reports.
The government was failing to properly protect people in Britain from these health harmful industries with serious consequences for public health and the national healthcare system, NHS. The government’s failure to set higher standards for the behavior of Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco, and Big Junk Food was causing a loss of £31 billion to the economy each year, according to the report.
The health harmful industries were making vast profits by bombarding consumers with marketing and deliberately blocking and derailing government initiatives to protect people from the predatory practices of the alcohol, tobacco, and junk food industries, such as seeking to discredit scientific evidence of harm.
For example, all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3 billion annual revenue comes from sales of products that are known to kill half of the people who use them.
Regarding alcohol, 43.4% of all revenue the alcohol industry earns in the UK comes from higher risk alcohol consumption – i.e. alcohol intake exceeding the government’s low-risk alcohol use guidelines of 14 units a week. The alcohol industry makes £11.2 billion from this higher risk volume of alcohol intake.
Regarding junk food, 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches government dietary guidelines for fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Those sales together generate £34.2 billion for the junk food industry.
This report calls for a coherent and strategic approach to rebalancing the profit-making powers of industries with the rights of people to live free, healthy and productive lives,” writes Professor Linda Bauld OBE, in the foreword of the report.
To achieve this, the whole of government needs to be part of a shared goal to protect and create a healthy society. The levers for change are rarely to be found only in the Department of Health and Social Care.
Much more consistency is also needed in how health-harming businesses are allowed to influence public health policy. Too often business has been able to delay, weaken or stop policies that would reduce consumption of health-harming products because this would not be in their commercial interests.
Finally, preventing ill health must be seen as an important public good to be invested in. Long term, stable funding is needed to put in place transformative changes that will protect our communities from the health-harming products that are holding us back.”Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health, University of Edinburgh. Director, SPECTRUM Consortium.
Consumers spend £81.5 billion a year on unhealthy products, from which the Treasury makes £28.8 billion through VAT receipts.
One in eight (13%) adults in England smoke, one in five (21%) consume more alcohol than the 14 units a week maximum according to the low-risk alcohol use guidelines and 64% of adults live with overweight or obesity.
The three health organisations said, as per The Guardian:
Big businesses are currently profiting from ill health caused by smoking, alcohol use, and eating unhealthy foods, while the public pay the price in poor health, higher taxes and an under-performing economy.”The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash)
Health harmful industries and the healthcare burden they cause
The research also found that:
- NHS hospitals admit 2.5 million patients a year for treatment of diseases directly linked to being overweight (1.02 million), alcohol (980,000) or smoking (506,000).
- About 459,000 people cannot work because they are too ill to do so as a result of smoking (289,000), alcohol use (99,000), or being morbidly obese, with a body mass index over 40 (70,000).
- People who smoke or consume alcohol at high-risk levels are more likely to be jobless and earn less than people who do not – a “wage penalty”.
- That wage penalty, together with unemployment and lost productivity due to smoking, alcohol use and obesity, costs the UK £31 billion a year.
The products and practices of the three multibillion-pound industries cause harm on a large scale. But much of this harm can be prevented through evidence-based government action. Therefore, the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) urged ministers to take ambitious action to put the health and well-being of people before the profit interests of health harmful industries.
Civil society and communities are calling on the government to protect people from health harmful advertising; raise the price of, and age of sale for, harmful products; remove certain products from prominent position in shops; and create mass media campaigns to alert the public to the risks posed by “health-harming products”.
Tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food are causing significant harm to our society,” said Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, the chair of the AHA and president of the British Medical Association, as per The Guardian.
The government cannot afford to sit on its hands any longer. As funding to public sector services dwindle, the industries peddling these harmful products line their pockets with billions in revenue. It’s time that the government puts the health of our nation before the profits of industry.”Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, chair, Alcohol Health Alliance. President, British Medical Association
The public supports government action
The Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) commissioned YouGov to conduct the Smokefree GB Survey 2023 of 12,271 British adults. The survey found that the public were more likely to feel the Government was not doing enough to prevent and reduce harms caused by alcohol, tobacco, and junk food industries than to think that the Government was doing too much or the right amount.
People strongly supports action directly targeting health-harming industries. The majority
of people asked supported the idea of levies on industries to reduce and/or prevent harms from
- 77% supported a tobacco industry levy,
- 62% supported an alcohol levy, and
- 59%supported a levy on unhealthy food and drink manufacturers.
The survey also showed that people also really want government action to protect health policy from the influence of health-harming industries and their representatives.
- 75% supported this for the tobacco industry (where this is already the case),
- 70% supported this for the alcohol industry, and
- 68% supported this for unhealthy food and drinks manufacturers.
Main findings of the report
The report contains compelling sections on key messages, analysis of the common playbook of the predatory industries, as well as insights into possible solutions and key recommendations.
- Tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food and drink are leading causes of ill health and early death. People in Britain are exposed to these products daily where they live, work, learn and socialise. This is holding people and communities back from building a society that is healthier, happier, and more productive. The public supports action to prevent and reduce harm from these products.
- There has been a failure to fully regulate health-harming products in line with the damage they cause. Health-harming industries work hard to influence public policy to protect their profits,
limiting the potential for appropriate regulatory measures.
- For people to lead healthier lives, the Government needs to build on the progress made on tobacco and further regulate harmful products in a way that is proportionate to their impacts on
health and society.
Health-harming industries use a ‘common playbook’ to avoid regulation
Health-harming industries (including the alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy food and drink industries)
use a ‘common playbook’ of actions to lobby government to prevent regulation. These tactics include
- discrediting scientific evidence or scientists,
- influencing public opinion through public relations,
- promoting alternative policy proposals more favourable to industry,
- focusing on the positive impact of industry, and
- threatening litigation.
This lobbying has delayed and disrupted the policy-making process, contributing to insufficient regulation of health-harming products.
There is an opportunity to translate some of the lessons learned from addressing tobacco to accelerate progress on unhealthy food and drink and alcohol in a way that is proportionate to how harmful the products are.
As industries selling health-harming products use similar strategies to undermine effective publichealth policies and programmes a coherent policy approach across products is an effective way to reduce and mitigate harms. This would take into consideration the similarities in the societal harms of the products and in the behaviours of health-harming industries whilst also acknowledging important differences between the products in terms of how harmful they are on the individual level.
The current focus on treating the harms caused by these products (secondary and tertiary
prevention) is contributing to people becoming unwell driving health inequalities overwhelming the NHS reducing workforce productivity and ultimately impacting the economy. A shift to a primary prevention approach is needed. A primary prevention approach would target the availability accessibility and appeal of these products thus reducing their consumption and preventing illness.
A coherent approach would be designed to curtail the behaviour of health-harming industries using fiscal measures and regulation of product advertising and accessibility to reduce harm.
Given that this policy approach conflicts with the vested interests of health-harming industries clear principles of how policymakers engage and interact with industry are needed.
The public health organizations call for a cross-government commitment to improving health.
Many of the levers required to enact change exist outside of the Department of Health and SocialCare. Therefore action on health-harming products should be part of a wider cross-governmentstrategy to improve the public’s health and reduce health inequalities. This will need strong leadership at a senior level within central government and clear structures and mechanisms in place to ensure health remains a priority for the whole of government in the long term.
Public health action at the local level and regional level is essential. Sufficient secure ring-fenced funding for prevention activities is necessary to facilitate this. This should be treated as an investment in the health and economy of British society.
Pursuing a coherent policy approach as part of a wider cross-government strategy will reducethe impact of harmful products improve the population’s health and quality of life reduce healthinequalities reduce the strain on the NHS increase workforce productivity and strengthen the economy.
- The Government should take a coherent policy approach to tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food and drink, with a focus on primary prevention.
To accelerate change government must focus on primary prevention, with a coherent, but proportionate, approach taken to regulating tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food and drink (high in fat, salt and/or sugar). This approach should be designed to curtail the behaviour of health-harming industries, using fiscal measures and regulation of product advertising and accessibility to reduce the harm caused by their products.
- Health should be prioritised through a cross-government approach to prevention.
The coherent approach to regulation should sit within a wider, cross-government approach to
prevention and reducing health inequalities, reforming the current siloed approach. This will require
strong leadership at the highest levels and mechanisms in place to ensure health remains a priority
in the long-term. All relevant parts of the Government should be held to account for the changes
- Public health policymaking must be protected from the vested interest of health-harming
New principles of engagement and interaction with industry should be developed for the alcohol
and unhealthy food and drink industries, based on transparency and accountability, to ensure that
public health policy can be progressed, and that health is prioritised over health-harming industry
profits. Rules on tobacco should continue to be upheld.
- Spending on prevention should be treated as investment.
To support public health efforts to reduce harm from unhealthy products, sustained and adequate
funding for prevention is required nationally, regionally, and locally. This should be delivered over
longer time frames to get the most benefit from public health programmes. Spending on prevention needs to be considered as an investment in our health and the economy.