The UK broadcasting watchdog has signalled its intention to toughen up guidelines on TV alcohol advertising as the country seeks to combat the rising problems associated with irresponsible drinking. Olly Wehring assesses the drinks industry's response.

The announcement by the UK's broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, last week that it is drawing up draft rules on the TV advertising of alcoholic drinks was the latest move in the long-running war against the culture of binge drinking, described by Prime Minister Tony Blair as "the new British disease", dominating the UK.

Ofcom, the UK's communications watchdog, believes that current guidelines on the promotion of alcohol in television advertisements do not go far enough, particularly when it comes to condoning anti-social or self-destructive behaviour, linking alcohol and sexual activity or attractiveness, reducing the appeal of the advertising to young audiences and condoning the irresponsible handling or serving of alcohol.

While the majority of drinks companies are withholding judgement on Ofcom's proposals pending consultation with the watchdog, it is clear that some will have to look at their advertising output with a fresh pair of eyes. One of Bacardi-Martini's recent adverts for Bacardi, for example, features a woman pouring a bottle of the drink with gay abandon over a partying group of twenty-somethings. In a statement following Ofcom's announcement, the company voiced fears that the watchdog may be going too far. "The proposals from Ofcom are significantly tougher than we had been expecting, and go further than industry own proposals, which are also contained as part of the public consultation," Bacardi-Martini said. Even so, such has been the negative coverage of the UK's alcohol-related problems that changes in alcohol advertising regulations guidelines had become almost inevitable.

Indeed, Ofcom is keen to stress that something needs to be done, and soon. Ofcom's Partner, Content and Standards, Tim Suter, said: "The evidence from research, as well as a broad consensus of public and industry opinion, indicates there is a strong case for specific changes to the existing rules on these particular products." A spokesperson for Ofcom clarified further: "As the environment for alcohol consumption has changed in recent years, the current rules have become outdated," she said. The closing date for responses to the public consultation is less than two months away, on 24 September.

Ofcom's ideas have not surprisingly been welcomed by Alcohol Concern, the national charity tackling alcohol-related problems. "Tighter controls over alcohol advertising … are long overdue but welcome," Alcohol Concern said last week. The charity's chief executive, Eric Appleby, added: "We have been campaigning for many years for drink advertising regulations to be clarified and toughened up. The existing regulatory regime has consistently failed to curb ads that clearly encourage binge drinking. Many current adverts would fall foul of the new guidelines. Now the improved new controls need to be backed by tough new enforcement.

"Now we shall be looking to the Government to back these proposals - as part of their promise to demand a more responsible drinks industry," Appleby said. "We'd also like to see them consider bringing the present voluntary code for marketing, packaging, naming and web promotion of drinks - currently run by the trade's Portman Group - under a regulatory regime independent of the drinks trade."

Alcohol Concern's call for this regulatory approach obviously jars somewhat with drinks companies who want to be given more time to address the problems through current self-regulatory means before Government control is resorted to. Nevertheless, recognising the necessity of retaining a positive working relationship with Ofcom, conciliatory noises are being made. "We will be making a constructive response to this consultation process," Bacardi-Martini said, "as we are committed to meeting industry standards as we enter the new self-regulatory framework, which Ofcom will oversee, and developing our current advertising campaigns to comply with the revised codes when they come into force."

And there is recognition on the part of drinks companies that the current situation does need reviewing. Speaking to just-drinks, Stephen Whitehead, director of group corporate affairs at Allied Domecq said: "Generally, we're very supportive of the changes. There's very little in it that we had any problem with."

A spokesman for Diageo, while rather less equivocal, still said that the company has worked with Ofcom in the past. "We participated in providing comment to Ofcom initially through the Incorporated Society for British Advertisers," he said. "We are now currently reviewing the revisions and will determine if and how we will participate in the public consultation."

The main obstacle in the way of Ofcom's tightening of the rules, however, is the overall cultural approach towards drinking alcohol in the UK, something which Whitehead points out. "We have no problem in showing adults consuming alcohol in a responsible manner, as we believe such responsibility should be taught at home, much as it is in France, for example," he said.

In France, drinking is introduced to the majority of children as a complement to a meal at home. Here in the UK, however, Whitehead sees alcohol being introduced to new consumers in the form of "getting as much of it down your throat as quickly as possible on an empty stomach."

Regardless of how deep in our culture excessive alcohol intake has gone, there can be no denying that something needs to be done in the current climate, particularly with such a high profile for binge drinking in the UK media. It will be interesting to see how active a part the alcohol industry will play in the consultation, but it is clear that a small disclaimer, suggesting that consumers drink in moderation, at the end of an advert will no longer suffice in battling this new British disease.