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Government accused of burying alcohol data



A controversy over cheap alcohol has made a mockery of government boasts about open data, ministers have been warned.

A highly-respected MP said such promises were hard to take seriously after evidence about the impact of dumping proposals for a minimum alcohol price was "suppressed".

Dr Sarah Wollaston, a GP-turned-Conservative MP, spoke out after it was revealed the government had "buried" a key study in the run-up to a major U-turn.

A draft report from the University of Sheffield was in the government's possession for five months - but was only made public after minimum pricing was scrapped, last July.

Sent to the Home Office in February, it concluded a 45p minimum price would cut alcohol consumption and the harm it caused, while having only a small impact on moderate drinkers.

A second Sheffield report concluded the government's preferred policy - of banning alcohol sales at costs cheaper than the tax payable on the product - would be 40 to 50 times less effective.

It was also delayed until after the U-turn announcement, five months later - at the Home Office's request.

In July, then Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, told MPs the Government lacked "concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms, without penalising people who drink responsibly".

An investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) revealed that the reports - which were published after the U-turn - had been "buried".

It also showed ministers and officials met representatives from large drinks firms and leading supermarkets on numerous occasions - even after the consultation on minimum pricing had closed.

Condemning the "shabby practice", Dr Wollaston wrote: "Inconvenient data should never be suppressed, because that distorts the evidence base for treatments and puts lives at risk.
"Inconvenient data should also be published in a timely manner; it is just as pernicious to delay publication until after any relevant decisions have been made.

"Is this the way for government to lead by example on the need for open data and what message does it send to the NHS, academia and Pharma on transparency?"

Warning cider would still be sold at less than 10p per unit, Dr Wollaston added: "The Government must review the use of data and lead by example."

In March 2012, David Cameron had written that a minimum price of 40p per unit could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year, while cutting alcohol-related deaths by 900 a year by the end of the decade.

The prime minister acknowledged the policy was not "universally popular," but added: "The responsibility of being in government isn't always about doing the popular thing. It's about doing the right thing."

After the BMJ investigation, the department of Health said it "utterly rejected the allegation of anything untoward" in the meetings with the drinks industry and supermarkets.

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