Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Alcohol

Is the billion unit pledge just window dressing?

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 12 May 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g3190
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Colchester, Essex, UK
  1. jonathangornall{at}

Last month the government announced that the alcohol industry was a quarter of the way to meeting its pledge to reduce alcohol consumption by a billion units, but do the figures stack up and what do they tell us about industry intentions? Jonathan Gornall investigates

In March 2012, 33 of Britain’s biggest drinks producers and retailers pledged to remove a billion units of alcohol from the UK market by December 2015 as part of the government’s “responsibility deal” aimed at improving public health. They would do so, they said, “principally through improving consumer choice of lower alcohol products.”1

The health secretary at the time, Andrew Lansley, whose industry dominated Public Health Commission had laid the groundwork for the responsibility deal while he was in opposition, said the pledge showed “what can be achieved for individuals and families when we work together with industry.”2

In fact, the billion unit pledge has shown only what can be achieved by an industry sufficiently powerful to allow it to browbeat a government into letting it take control of public health policy.

The pledge was launched on the same day as the government’s alcohol strategy, which contained a pledge of its own—the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol, a commitment underwritten by the prime minister. Evidence based and welcomed by public health experts, the policy was fiercely opposed by the alcohol industry and within a year it was dead.

As The BMJ has already reported, the industry worked tirelessly behind the scenes to persuade ministers to scrap minimum pricing.3 Now fresh evidence has emerged that it actually threatened to walk away from the responsibility deal unless it got its way.

Scepticism about lower alcohol drinks

From the outset, public health members of the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (RDAN) were sceptical about the billion unit pledge. …

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