Analysis: Alcohol industry under fire

As an industry, alcoholic drinks makers and its marketers are fast becoming among the most demonised groups in the country, responsible for some of society’s worst ills – binge drinking, anti social behaviour and a growing public health crisis.

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Or so some in Westminster and charities such as Alcohol Concern would have you believe. Last week, saw the latest salvo in the debate.

A group of MPs, as part of the Health Committee’s inquiry into alcohol misuse, took the Advertising Standards Authority and industry body The Portman Group to task over the effectiveness of the existing regulatory system in protecting the vulnerable from the ills of alcohol.

Although an evidence gathering committee, it was clear what some of its members would like to see – further exploration of additional scheduling restrictions, or perhaps complete prohibition.

Suggestions that the existing self-regulatory system is “lax”, that some brands “push the boundaries”, at best, while other advertisers need to take a “huge chunk of the blame” for the public health problems alcohol causes were thrown, pointedly, at Guy Parker, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority and Kate Stross, director of content and standards at Ofcom.

The drinks industry too, represented by Portman Group chief executive David Poley was also pursued, as he fielded inferences that education, via industry funded charity Drinkaware, was not enough to curb alcohol abuse with health warnings on bottles and cans suggested as possible necessary additional measures.

In defence, both regulators and industry were resolute, hardened from several years of accusations.

Parker says the “evidence is not strong that the alcohol advertising causes alcohol misuse”. He argued that a ban on advertising would simply switch focus to price promotion, as influential a factor in the consumption of alcohol.

Poley argued that it was “completely wrong” that education doesn’t work, adding that the “predominant affect of advertising is the encouragement of brand switching and not consumption.”

A robust rearguard, and one which has been well rehearsed in recent years after academic study after academic study joined the dots between advertising and increased consumption, as argued by another witness at the hearing, Professor David Foxcroft from Oxford Brookes University.

MPs love academic studies but even more they love feeling they are on the public’s side in any debate, and if the they feel the public leaning towards a clampdown on ‘Booze Britain’ then further restrictions could be called for via this Committee to either the current Government or the one in waiting.

Little is known on the Conservative Party’s stance, but an insight into possible policy came this week via the Public Health Commission, a body consisting of private and public sector representatives. Launched by Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley last year to help inform Tory policy, the Commission has called for “an independent and periodic review of the impacts of alcoholic advertising on children to inform future codes”.

It seems that on both sides of the House there is an appetite for increased and ongoing scrutiny. The industry needs to engage with the Government to ensure alcohol advertising is not confined to the same place as the marketing of tobacco – history.

Project 10, the as yet little known about industry movement, which has been described as the alcohol industry’s equivalent of “Change4Life” is a good place to start. Due to be launched this year, the project is a good opportunity for the industry to engage with the Government, the current one or next, and avoid more stringent legislation.

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