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In the News

Alcohol information failure

Penny Brooks

13th January 2010

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was interviewed on radio 4's Today Programme about the Conservative Party's call for changes to labelling on alcoholic drinks. They say the current approach of using alcohol units is widely misunderstood, and want it replaced with centilitres. Mr Lansley identified the negative externalities associated with abuse of alcohol as costing £20bn to society, and said that the current system of information, printing the number of units contained in a bottle or can of alcoholic drink, did not allow the public to make decisions about how much to drink, as the implication is that one 'serving' of the drink is the equivalent one unit. However this is often not the case – a typical glass of wine is between 1.5 and 2 units, and a pint of beer or lager can be more than two units, depending on the alcohol content of the brew. Instead the Tories would like to see the number of centilitres of pure alcohol shown on the label, suggesting that this would be easier for consumers to relate to the total amount they are drinking, rather like showing the amount of saturated fats in foods as grams, which are easier to assess as a proportion of the total food weight rather than showing the amount in calories.

The interview can be accessed here from the Today website for the next 7 days, and there is also a longer text article here (which will remain accessible), with more detail including the fact that the current system of showing units is not a regulation but a voluntary code which has been in place since the late 1990s encouraging drinks manufacturers to give details about the number of units in drinks. Recent research showed that only just over half of all drinks contain unit information - despite an industry pledge last year to improve compliance.

Hence another aspect of the Conservative's approach to regulate more over supply and consider introducing higher rates of duty in order to achieve the change in behaviour which would move the marginal private cost of drinking alcohol closer to the Marginal Social Cost.

Penny Brooks

Formerly Head of Business and Economics and now Economics teacher, Business and Economics blogger and presenter for Tutor2u, and private tutor

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