HL Deb 04 February 2002 vol 631 cc454-6

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider limiting the form and content of alcohol advertising.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the Government work closely with the drinks industry to ensure that advertising is socially responsible. The current voluntary arrangements are working well but we are always willing to consider any new proposals which might encourage sensible alcohol consumption.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reasonably helpful reply. Is he aware—I am sure that he is—that all students drink? It is an intrinsic and pleasurable part of student existence. Is he also aware that Dundee Students Union, of which I am proud to have been a member, as was my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, has a sensible drinking policy but that it has recently become concerned about a new trend of excessive drinking and bingeing? It wonders whether anything can be done to help to stop that.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I recollect that drinking was an important part of university life, although it has not yet reached the status of an entry requirement. I am also aware that Dundee Students Union has a commendable policy of drawing attention to the seriousness of "binge drinking", as I believe it is called. The Government share the concern about excessive amounts of alcohol being consumed in a short period of time. I should be even more impressed with Dundee Students Union if it were to pass on its policy to its four bars, which promote happy hours each day.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the amount of alcohol consumed by 11 to 16 year-olds has more than doubled over the past decade? I declare an interest as having been the possessor, as it were, of two children falling into that bracket. Is he also aware that the advertising industry spends more on advertising alcopops than it does on advertising wine? In addition, is he aware that schools are often more concerned about alcohol abuse among their pupils than they are about drug abuse—possibly rightly so? What does the noble Lord propose to do to turn that problem around?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, first, we must ensure that the problem is viewed in proportion. Concern about under-age drinking does exist but sometimes it depends on the social context within which it takes place. One knows of friends who allow their children from the age of 14 onwards and in a supervised environment to drink wine with water over a meal. That is hardly a major issue of concern. Alcopops have been, and remain, a concern of the Government in terms of whether they represent an insidious form of promoting drink to young people. In that respect, through £21 million-worth of support per annum to the national curriculum, the Government have taken, and continue to take, action to promote through schools and through the schools forum the sensible use of alcohol and to raise concerns about drugs.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that alcohol is more dangerous for young girls and women than it is for males? Will he ensure that more health education is available in order to inform people of the number of units of alcohol that may safely be consumed?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am aware of that. I believe that it gave rise to the rather sensitive admission by my noble friend Lord Hunt that women have less water and more fat in their bodies, which accounts for the greater propensity of females to metabolise alcohol more slowly. I give that as a piece of scientific information which I know the House would want to hear. On a more serious note, there is a trend for young women to binge-drink—a trend which may have been less prevalent 20 or 30 years ago. As a consequence, they are more susceptible to alcohol. This issue is a focus of the Government's concern and it has led to the development of their alcohol misuse strategy, which is currently being prepared.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that alcohol is probably the most dangerous drug in this country, particularly when it is mixed with soft and hard drugs? Does he also agree that it is responsible for many deaths? Each year 35,000 young people die from alcohol poisoning and many people are killed on the roads. Many murders take place and the abuse of wives and children also occurs because of alcohol. Will the Government consider supporting the Liquor Advertising and Promotion Bill, which I introduced in the last Parliament and which is now waiting in the wings, since it follows very closely the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, which the Government now support?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, in a word: no. I look forward to reading the Liquor Advertising and Promotion Bill to which the noble Lord draws my attention. However, the facts are not as he says. The most dangerous drug available in this country is tobacco, not alcohol. Each year 120,000 people die from tobacco-related diseases, whereas the number of people who die from cirrhosis of the liver each year is 4,600. That is 4,600 too many, but there is no comparison between the mortality rates of tobacco and alcohol.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the drinks industry could be more helpful as regards the labelling on bottles of alcohol? Does he agree that it would be helpful to have the number of units of alcohol in a bottle of wine printed on the label? Such information could be related to the health education of which we are all aware, and to how many units of alcohol it is safe for a man or a woman to drink in a week. Some bottles of wine contain six units and some contain nine units; it depends on the level of alcohol in the bottle.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I have learnt something. I had always thought that there were six units in a bottle of wine. That will probably allow me to increase my weekly dose. To be serious, that is a sensible point that we should consider in the department as we develop the strategy on alcohol misuse. As noble Lords are aware, the definition has changed from 21 units a week for a man to between three and four units a day to try to limit people cheating on binge drinking.

Lord Condon

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Independent Complaints Panel of the Portman Group. Is the Minister aware that the Portman Group, which seeks to promote sensible drinking of alcohol, is currently reviewing all its codes for guidance, self-regulation and complaints, and is seeking observations and recommendations for a new strengthened version of the code to be published in the summer?

Lord Filkin

Yes, my Lords, we are aware of that. We look forward to reading that and hope that it will have a powerful impact.