Officials and ministers had 130 meetings with industry lobbyists while government was considering alcohol price controls
Senior doctors have accused the government of "dancing to the tune of the drinks industry" after it emerged that health officials and ministers had 130 meetings with alcohol and supermarket lobbyists while they were considering new price controls.
An investigation by the British Medical Journal was undertaken after David Cameron backed plans to impose a minimum price per unit of alcohol, and then dropped the policy in July last year over a lack of "concrete evidence" it would reduce harmful drinking.
The policy had been opposed by several senior ministers over fears it would raise the cost of beer, wine and spirits for shoppers. However, others, including Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP for Totnes, and Labour, raised concerns about the impact of lobbying by the drinks industry.
In its new report, the BMJ found only very few of the 130 meetings between the Department of Health and the industry since 2010 were publicly documented because they were mostly with officials, rather than at ministerial level.
It also found one with Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, and another, with the then public heath minister, Anna Soubry, took place after the end of an official consultation into the policy last year.
The government said the meetings were entirely proper and there were a similar number with health campaigners, but on Tuesday night, Labour and medical professionals condemned the access given to lobbyists on such a major public health issue.
In an open letter, 21 senior doctors and campaigners, including Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser on alcohol for the Royal College of Physicians, raised fears that "big business is trumping public health concerns in Westminster".
"The drinks industry continues to have high-level access to government ministers and officials while no forum currently exists for the public health community to put forward its case in an environment free from vested interests," Gilmore said.
"With deaths from liver disease rapidly rising and teenagers now presenting with advanced liver failure, the government has a duty to realise its commitment to introduce minimum pricing."
Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, said it showed the government had been "found out cosying up to vested interests and standing up for the wrong people".
"It has become a hallmark of his government," he said. "Public health policy is in utter disarray. After the tobacco industry last year, these revelations raise yet more concerns about the influence of big business on this government's policies."
A spokesman for the Department of Health said it was completely unfounded to "insinuate routine meetings between departmental officials and industry representatives amounted to an improper relationship with the drinks industry.
"Using the same methodology of counting every meeting between every official and a stakeholder representative over the last three years, the department has had a similar number or more meetings with health charities, health campaigners or the food industry," the spokesman said.
"As you would expect from a government department seeking to effect public health change through a voluntary deal with industry, a wide group of officials have many different meetings with a vast range of stakeholders, and we utterly reject the allegation of anything untoward in the small proportion of those that took place with the alcohol industry."
She added that the government was still considering minimum unit pricing as a part of its plans to tackle alcohol abuse.
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