Wine and spirits getting stronger amid drive to cut alcohol consumption

Progress report on pledge to remove 1bn units of alcohol from shops shows average ABV of wine and spirits has increased

Wine and spirits are getting stronger, official figures show, affecting government efforts to get the drinks industry to remove 1bn units of alcohol from high street stores.

The average volume of alcohol in drinks edged up from 7.25% to 7.31% between 2011 and 2012, according to a little-noticed Department of Health report.

Health ministers want the industry toremove 1bn units from supermarket and off-licence shelves by the end of 2015 to help cut alcohol-related illnesses and deaths.

Initially there seemed to be good news in the figures, as 253m units of alcohol were removed through the introduction of lower-alcohol products and the reformulation of existing drinks, making the 2015 target look achievable.

But most of the improvement related to reductions in the strength of beer, and to a lesser extent cider and alcopops, while the strength of wine and spirits increased. This meant the average volume of alcohol in drinks consumed rose.

Health charities have warned that over the past decade the strength of wines has been rising – to 12-14% for whites and 14-15% for reds.

The Department of Health's progress report (pdf) covers the first full year of the 1bn pledge, one of the flagship commitments of its "responsibility deal" to improve public health.

It says the average ABV (alcohol by volume) of spirits rose by 0.14 percentage points, and that of wine by 0.01 percentage points. That meant an extra 42m units of spirits and 15m more units of wine went on sale between 2011 and 2012 – the latter considered surprising given the industry's efforts to offer lower-strength wines.

It was one of an overarching series of pledges that major drinks companies and retailers have signed up to under the terms of thea four-year voluntary deal intended to "foster a culture of responsible drinking, which will help people to drink within guidelines."

Reporting the significance of the new data, the trade magazine the Grocer said: "Considering the data includes results such as Sainsbury's selling 17.5% more lighter-alcohol wine in the period, Diageo cutting by 0.55% the ABV of the UK's biggest-selling wine, Blossom Hill, and Tesco launching more than 10 new light wines, it is a pretty poor show."

Behind the scenes, the drinks industry is furious at the use of old data, which means improvements have not been recognised. Health campaign groups say regulation such as minimum pricing – dropped by the government last summer – is the only way to force the industry to act responsibly.

Data for the second year of the 1bn pledge is unlikely until the end of the year.

On Thursday the Department of Health will publish progress towards a separate pledge: that 80% of alcoholic drinks sold "off-trade" – in supermarkets, corner shops and off-licences – have health warnings on the labels.

Low-alcohol wine was once a niche market because of its dubious taste, and the drinks industry is mindful that consumers want better-tasting products. Sainbury's, the UK's third-largest supermarket, is holding a summit on the issue in June.

A spokeswoman said Sainsbury's was committed to doubling its sales of lighter alcohol wine and a reduction of average alcohol content in its own-label wine and beer. "We have grown the sales of lighter alcohol wines by 32% since 2010, adding new lines and reducing ABV in some core lines such as our basics wine and cider range."

Nick Fleming, wines and spirits buyer at Harrods, said the quality and flavour profile of a wine or spirit was a priority, "and whilst alcohol strength is one of a series of considerations taken into account before a product is added to the portfolio at Harrods, I would not consider a wine simply because it was low alcohol, in the same way I would not consider anything that uses its high alcohol strength as a reason to buy, such as "strongest beer in the world".

Health charities urged the government to ditch the "discredited" responsibility deal, saying voluntary action was not working. Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: "While the alcohol industry pledged to reduce units, they simultaneously bullied the Treasury into giving them a duty cut, which the government acknowledges will cause consumption to go up. The government should focus on implementing its own existing evidence-based strategy, which includes minimum unit pricing."

Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, said the commitment to removing 1bn units of alcohol from the market was "a groundbreaking pledge, which is hugely ambitious, and the interim monitoring shows the industry is on track to meet this target".


Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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