ANALYSIS: Is alcohol the new tobacco? - Alcohol advertisers fear that industry self-regulation may not be enough to ward off tough ad restrictions, writes Matthew Arnold

It may be the season to eat, drink and be merry, but there was bad

news for alcohol brands in the chief medical officer's annual report

last week.



The survey found a worrying rise in the number of young people, and

particularly young women, suffering from alcohol-related liver problems.

The Department of Health said binge drinking was to blame.



The report seems sure to prompt a new round of cries for tighter

restrictions on alcohol sales, packaging and ads, and chief medical

officer professor Liam Donaldson initially appeared to have confirmed

advertisers' worst fears.



In response to what a DoH spokesman says was a leading question from a

reporter, Donaldson agreed that the government should consider placing

health warnings on alcohol labelling. The Incorporated Society of

British Advertisers (ISBA) responded promptly, calling the suggestion

that ads or packaging should carry warnings "pointless" and "unlikely to

work".



ISBA director of public affairs Ian Twinn slammed the government for

inaction on the problems of over-consumption and young people

drinking.



"The government gets more money than most from excise duties," he said.

"Why doesn't it spend some of it on positive advertising to promote the

message of responsible drinking?"



Industry action



This is a common refrain among spirits marketers when ministers talk of

tightening the regulations. The Portman Group, the drinks industry

consortium founded in 1989, already aims to promote responsible drinking

and keep kids away from alcohol. Drinks marketers note bitterly that

while the government runs advertising to tackle drink-driving, it does

nothing to discourage binge drinking. And although the industry itself

claims it is addressing the problem, that does not stop government

ministers from calling for more restrictions.



"Advertising is often the softer target for people who oppose a

particular industry," says Portman Group policy head David Foley. "It's

a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Alcohol is a product that can be misused

and this can result in harm to the community, so it's not surprising

that from time to time the people who have to deal with these problems

criticise the industry."



Drinks advertisers are subject to four different sets of advertising

regulations, some voluntary. In TV ads, spirits producers must follow a

set of rules administered by the Independent Television Commission or

see their ads pulled.



Similarly, the Radio Authority polices radio ads. Non-broadcast

advertising is subject to a voluntary code of conduct drawn up by the

Advertising Standards Authority, and naming and packaging fall under

voluntary rules imposed by the industry's Portman Group.



Foley says: "They are all trying to achieve the same thing. You're not

allowed to show anyone under the age of 25 or anyone who looks like they

may be under the age of 25. You're not allowed to do anything that

condones or encourages drunkenness. The important thing is not to appeal

to under-18s or encourage alcohol misuse."



While TV and radio regulators have the power to jettison ads and levy

fines, the industry remains largely self-policing. Drinks producers

would like to keep it that way, but a number of challenges loom in the

not-too-distant future. The government's first national alcohol strategy

report is due to be released in 18 months, and some European Union

member states advocate more stringent regulation.



Drinks producers are nervous that alcohol marketing could be moving into

the same murky waters as tobacco.



A year ago, the European Commission called for tighter controls on

alcohol advertising, to combat underage drinking. Nothing came of it,

but it was enough to put producers on notice. More recently, France has

been taken to the European Court of Justice over its Loi Evin, a measure

banning all TV alcohol advertising. Two cases involving France's refusal

to broadcast foreign football games with alcohol brand banner ads lining

the stadium are pending.



Loi Evin is viewed as a potential blueprint for the anti-alcohol

lobby.



Sweden, Denmark and Finland also have strict regulations banning

virtually all advertising outside of spirits trade magazines. The World

Health Organisation has lobbied for a ban on alcohol ads.



In the UK, pressure group Alcohol Concern has called for warnings to be

placed on packaging and for a levy on advertising to fund awareness and

health campaigns. Earlier in the year, Labour peer Lord Stoddart of

Swindon, who opposes regulation of tobacco advertising, was slammed by

the Advertising Association for "mischief making" after he proposed a

ban on alcohol ads.



But the fact is that in the advertising regulations of many countries,

such as the US, alcohol and tobacco are treated as a unit. Advertisers

worry that such a treatment could take root here as well, and argue

vehemently against making that connection. "In small to moderate

amounts, alcohol can be pleasurable and even beneficial to health in

some people," says English Wines managing director Frazer Thompson.

"That's unlike tobacco, where no amount of consumption can be

healthy."



Product warnings



Alcohol marketers say warning labels only make a product more attractive

to youth. "If something has a warning on it, it can become a cool thing

to do," says Twinn.



Thompson says the industry must remain vigilant in its self-policing if

it is to safeguard its rights. "The day we don't listen to the pressure

groups is the day we're a year from the end," says Thompson. "I think we

must stay one step ahead, acknowledge issues as they come up and make

the argument strong by showing responsible action."



Those companies that flirt with danger, Thompson says, jeopardise the

entire industry. He still recalls with rage a Woodpecker cider ad that

came out 12 years ago, when he was global brand director for Heineken in

Amsterdam. It ran with the strapline, 'Get out of your tree'. The ad was

banned shortly after its first airing, but the damage was done. "It was

shocking," said Thompson. "It just takes somebody to go off the wall and

we all go."



Alcopops are a particular sore point for the industry. Consumed by and

marketed to a younger audience, they are popular among women and

under-18s and have been the source of several scandals in recent years.

In response, the Portman Group has adopted rules prohibiting producers

from promoting their products as lending to a person's physical, social

or mental prowess, effectively banning the term, 'energy drink'. The

rules forced Beverage Brands to rename its VRB, or Vodka Revitalising

Beverage, as VR - and the company now blames the name change in part for

the poor sales that have forced it to scrap the brand.



Matthew Clark Brands' decision to market an fcuk-branded alcopop has

drawn the pre-emptive wrath of others in the industry."It's possible to

launch a brand in a responsible way that would not encourage misuse,"

says Twinn. But self-policing, he says, will weed out the bad seeds

better than government regulation. "It's also possible to tackle these

issues without over-regulating. Advertising is at its best when putting

over a positive message. That's why it helps to sell goods. Telling

people not to do things is never an attractive way of doing it."



NUMBER OF DEATHS FROM CHRONIC LIVER DISEASE, ENGLAND*

Age in 1970 1985 2000

years Male Female Male Female Male Female

25-34 16 7 20 24 68 60

35-44 33 22 99 72 402 228

45-54 124 86 233 142 805 405

55-64 215 154 373 308 721 364

Source: Office for National Statistics

*there were changes in coding rules for causes of death in 1984 and 1993



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