Report on UK alcohol industry’s “billion units pledge” is flawed

Sheffield University

  • In 2012, the UK government announced an industry pledge to remove a billion units of alcohol from the market by December 2015
  • Sheffield Alcohol Research Group raise concerns over analysis and question claims that the pledge has been met
  • Experts call for the report to be withdrawn and targets revised

The Department of Health’s interim evaluation of an alcohol industry pledge to remove one billion units of alcohol from the market is flawed, argue researchers from the University of Sheffield.

Experts from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group (SARG) have raised concerns over the interim evaluation and question claims that the pledge has been met, in analysis published by the British Medical Journal this week (24 March 2015).

Dr John Holmes and his colleagues based at the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) say that key assumptions within the analysis are “simplistic” and call for the report to be withdrawn and revised targets set.

“The Department of Health and their partners in the Responsibility Deal have promoted the Billion Unit pledge as an example of what can be achieved by government working in partnership with the alcohol industry,” said Dr Holmes, SARG Senior Research Fellow and lead author of the study.

“However, there are flaws in the Department of Health’s interim evaluation which are sufficiently serious that we believe the report should be withdrawn along with claims that the target of removing one billion units from the market has been met.”

In 2012, the UK government announced an industry pledge to remove a billion units of alcohol from the market by December 2015, as part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal, the government’s flagship public health policy.

The pledge would be achieved, it said, “principally through improving consumer choice of lower alcohol products.”

In December 2014, the Department of Health produced its second interim report on progress towards meeting the pledge. It concluded that 1.3 billion units had been removed from the market as a result of the pledge between 2011 and 2013, exceeding the target two years early.

However, the research team argue that a closer look at the analyses and data that underpin this headline figure raises questions about how much of the recent changes in alcohol consumption are truly attributable to the pledge.

They believe the data used in the analysis “may not be fit for purpose, that the report makes simplistic assumptions about consumer responses to the pledge, and takes insufficient notice of confounding factors.”

For example, they suggest a change to the way HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) recorded beer data and the introduction of lower taxes on lower strength beers may account for some of the estimated effect of the pledge.

An assumption is also made in the analysis that the pledge will lead people to simply drink the same amount of beer and wine but at a lower strength. The researchers argue this is simplistic and means the analysis will give misleading results.

Until these problems of data, plausible consumer responses, and confounding have been addressed, the researchers say they question the validity of the conclusion that 1.3 billion units have been removed from the market or that the pledge has been met.

They acknowledge that their critique “does not imply the billion unit pledge is bad for public health” but they claim that a lack of appropriate data means a rigorous evaluation of whether the pledge has been met may not be possible.

They recommend that the Department of Health “withdraws the 2014 interim report, requests stakeholders not to cite its conclusions, and reviews the evaluation approach.” They also recommend the billion unit target “is abandoned in favour of measurable alternatives.”

Note to editors:
Analysis: UK alcohol industry’s “billion units pledge”: interim evaluation flawed
Journal title: The BMJ
Embargo link: http://press.psprings.co.uk/bmj/march/billionunits.pdf
Link once embargo lifts: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/doi/10.1136/bmj.h1301

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