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
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
ISBA director of public affairs Ian Twinn slammed the government for
inaction on the problems of over-consumption and young people
"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?"
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
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
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