I have much sympathy for the House of Commons Health Committees concerns about the consequences of binge drinking which are a cause of many serious accidents, disorder, violence and crime; [and] also long term heavy drinking which causes more harm to health.
Its very easy for politicians to go for a one-line sound-bite from a 140 page report and scapegoat manufacturers and advertisers; but the problems of obese-cider-swilling-teenage-neer-do-wells congregating on street corners is a much deeper societal issue than can be solved by a bit of tinkering with advertising regulation. The Health Committee itself recommends that the top issues to be addressed are over-availability and minimum pricing; with some tightening of the scope and process of existing marketing regulation, particularly around sports sponsorship.
My own experience working in both childrens marketing and alcoholic drinks (not at the same time!) confirms that both markets are highly and effectively regulated in terms of product development, labelling and particularly advertising.
Some of the most effective moves in childrens food and beverage marketing recently have been self-imposed by manufacturers aiming for a healthier competitive edge in targeting children and their mothers, and improving listings in major retailers. These moves have largely been in response to trends in consumer attitudes (eg on artificial colours and sweeteners).
The Drinks industry has a history of self-regulation through the Portman Group, and ASA/BCAP codes of practice are very specific about the protection of children and promoting responsible drinking. However, it is also time to recognise that problem drinkers reflect society’s attitude to alcohol, and until this perception is effectively challenged, until it becomes socially unacceptable to spend Friday nights staggering vomiting and urinating in high streets, then tactics such as minimum pricing, licensing restrictions and advertising restrictions will be simply temporary sticking plasters.
Education, information campaigns such as DrinkAware, and labelling will not change short term behaviour, but they can change attitudes and lay the ground for initiatives such as the recent St Neots Community Alcohol Partnership* to successfully tackle this important long term issue in a holistic way.
It is time that Politicians recognized that manufacturers and advertisers can be a force for good in this society and work more closely with us. We are not the enemy. We have teenage children too and want to live in a healthy happy and secure society.
13th January 2010
Chris Collis is a Chartered Marketer and Director of Marketing Walk, an independent Marketing Strategy and outsourcing house www.marketingwalk.net
*A six month test project in 2008 in St Neots, Cambidgeshire delivered:
42% decrease in anti-social behaviour incidents
94% decrease in under-age people found in possession of alcohol
92% decrease in alcohol-related litter at key hot spot area
Source: House of Commons Health Committee 2010