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DH ‘should withdraw’ flawed report on alcohol pledge

Experts doubt claim that billion unit target has been met, and call for measurable alternatives

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Experts dispute the Government’s claim that it beat by two years its target to remove a billion units of alcohol from the market and say the second interim report was based on an evaluation of data that was not fit for purpose. They have called for the billion units pledge to be scrapped and replaced with measurable alternatives, in their analysis* in today’s BMJ.

The government published its second interim report in December 2014, evaluating the success of its 2012 industry pledge to remove a billion units of alcohol from the market by December 2015, as part of its flagship health policy, the Public Health Responsibility Deal. At the time, it said it would achieve its pledge “principally through improving consumer choice of lower alcohol products.”

December’s report found that 1.3bn units had already been removed between 2011 and 2013, as a result of the pledge, beating the target by more than two years. But researchers from Sheffield University’s Alcohol Research Group have now analysed the report and found that some of its key assumptions are simplistic. They argue that the data behind the government’s claim to have exceeded its target “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”. They dispute claims that the changes in alcohol consumption could all be truly attributed to the pledge itself, and write that other factors could have had an important effect.

They suggest that what might in fact have accounted for some of the estimated effect of the pledge in cutting alcohol consumption, was the change to the way in which HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) recorded beer data, as well as the introduction of taxes on lower strength beers. Further, they point out that the analysis in the second interim report made the assumption that the pledge would simply lead people to drink the same amount of beer or wine, but of a lower strength – which they said was simplistic, and would give misleading results.

The researchers said that until these problems of data, plausible consumer response and confounding have been addressed, we must question the validity of the report’s conclusions that 1.3 billion alcohol units have been removed from the market and that the pledge has been achieved. Even though they admit that their critique doesn’t mean the billion unit pledge is bad for public health, they say that a rigorous evaluation of whether or not it has been successful may not be possible because of a lack of appropriate data.

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

* John Holmes, et al. UK alcohol industry’s “billion units pledge”: interim evaluation flawed. BMJ 2015;350:h1301. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h1301

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