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Global Health Watch: Britain seeks to improve nation's health with 'Responsibility Deal'

March 15, 2011|By Janet Stobart, Tribune Health
(Getty Images )

LONDON -- Alarm bells rang in some parts of Britain's health sector as the government unveiled its Health Responsibility Deal on Tuesday. The initiative seeks pledges from industry and public welfare services to tackle growing health problems in society, particularly alcohol abuse.

The Responsibility Deal is an appeal to food and drink industry outlets as well as sports and leisure centers to agree to a list of principles that encourage healthier lifestyles with responsible consumption of food and drink.

Key aspects of the pledge call for reduced salt and abolition of transfats in food products, calorie counts on menus, clear alcohol unit labeling as well as stronger measures to prevent the sale of alcohol to those younger than 18. Other pledges ask activity centers to organize greater access to sports, particularly for disadvantaged kids and adults. The goal there is to combat Britain's growing obesity problem.

So far, about 170 businesses have signed up with the deal. However, several health organizations have withdrawn their support because they say it doesn't address the dangers of harmful food ingredients and alcohol. They accuse the government of pandering to the world of commerce at the cost of public health.

Measures aimed at combating alcoholism are not nearly strong enough, say members of the Royal College of Physicians, the British Medical Assn. and other health groups. A collective letter to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley complains that the guidelines are too vague and don’t specifically address core issues such as promotion and pricing of strong drink and the real dangers of alcohol abuse.

"There are no firm targets or any sanctions if the drinks industry fails to fulfill its pledges. It's all carrot and no stick for the drinks industry and supermarkets," says Don Shenker, who heads the charity Alcohol Concern.

For Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Assn., the pledges don't aim at protecting youngsters from the potential dangers of alcohol abuse. "Young people don’t know alcohol is a poison – that people die of acute toxicity."

Doctors such as Ian Gilmour, co-author of a recent Lancet study on alcoholism and disease, say alcohol is a growing problem in Britain. In other European countries, alcohol-related deaths have changed very little while in Britain they have doubled, he said in his interview with the BBC in February.

For their part, the government's health department claims it has already accomplished much in the public health sector. In presenting the deal, Lansley said the pledges were part of a greater public health strategy, calling it "the first step."

"While I’m pleased with the progress we have achieved in seven months and that over 170 organizations have already signed up as partners, we want more organizations to sign up, and also to work with us to develop further collective and individual pledges," he said.

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