The smoke warnings have been billowing from the tobacco industry for years. But the problems of how to market alcohol in the face of drink-driving, health and alcohol abuse issues have not been solved. In the first of a series of articles on the subject Ben Cooper investigates the conflict between morality, health and the alcohol business.

Seeing what has happened to tobacco over the past 20 years has been an unsettling experience for the drinks industry. It may not quite be a case of "There but for the grace of God go we", but alcohol companies have realised that in spite of clear differences between the two products, some of the same problems could be visited on their industry.

That alcohol has not suffered in the same way owes much to the intervention of social aspects organisations (SAOs) such as the UK's Portman Group and the Century Council in the US. These have done much to foster a reasoned debate about alcohol and alcohol abuse, working in areas such as drink-driving and the prevention of under-age drinking.

Portman Group: DESignated Driver Campaign

However, more fundamentally, the drinks industry would not have been able to take these steps had the differences between alcohol and tobacco not been generally appreciated. "In both cases its sale is age-restricted and the substance is capable of causing addiction. After that, comparison stops," says Jean Coussins, director of the Portman Group. "There is, for instance, no sensible smoking message - all smoking is harmful. But sensible drinking is not risky to health and can even offer positive health benefits."

While the health debate on alcohol has taken many twists and turns, the broadly accepted view is that for most people moderate consumption is not harmful to health. The social effects - related chiefly to drink-driving, under-age drinking and alcohol-related violence - pose a greater immediate threat. However, it is clearly the misuse of alcohol rather than drink per se which is at the root of these problems. This means the industry can work in partnership with public health, anti-drink-driving and alcohol abuse pressure groups rather than having to battle against them. "We work with the public health community all the time because we have a common interest in reducing alcohol misuse. The tobacco industry and the public health community do not have a common agenda," says Gaye Pedlow, group alcohol policy director at Diageo.

If self-regulation in advertising, is seen not to work, legislation and regulation will follow.

This is also borne out by the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), an industry-funded research organisation. "Every project we undertake involves people from the industry and from public health," says ICAP president, Marcus Grant. ICAP was instrumental in the agreement of The Dublin Principles, a set of guidelines agreed by a group of scientists, industry executives, government officials and public health experts, as a basis for co-operation among all bodies concerned with informing the public about alcohol and preventing misuse.

In stark comparison to the entrenched position of the tobacco industry, the drinks industry has been proactive in combating the social problems associated with alcohol. The Portman Group's self-regulatory Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Merchandising of Alcoholic Drinks has won widespread support and is increasingly being adopted throughout Europe.

Working with organisations such as Alcohol Concern, The Department of Health, The Driving Standards Agency and The Department of Education, the group has been involved in campaigns and initiatives aimed at reducing drink-driving and under-age alcohol misuse. It is shortly to introduce a campaign tackling drunkenness, seen by Coussins as one of the major prevailing threats the industry must face.

Far from being set against legislation, The Portman Group has lobbied parliament to clamp down on alcohol abuse. It has supported legislation to make the salesperson, rather than just the licensee, criminally liable for selling to a minor, and to criminalise adult proxy purchase for a minor. The group is lobbying vehemently for a young person's ID card and already operates its own voluntary proof-of-age scheme.

Mothers Against Drink-Driving: MADD House Gang

The Portman Group has been a model for SAOs in other countries. The US's Century Council runs programmes to tackle under-age drinking with in-store initiatives and education programmes in schools and colleges. Once again, the fact that it works with bodies like the National Bureau for Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse and the pressure group, Mothers against Drink-Driving, speaks volumes.

However, in spite of a prevailing tolerance towards alcohol from most governments and the successes of The Portman Group and others, the alcohol industry still faces daunting challenges. The Australia, New Zealand Food Authority recently threw out an application made by the pressure group, Society without Alcoholic Trauma, to have all alcohol labelled, "This product contains alcohol. Alcohol is a dangerous drug." While the industry was heartened that the measure was not adopted, the fact that it was being considered underlines the risks of complacency.

Quite simply, if self-regulation in advertising and packaging, for example, is seen not to work, legislation and regulation will inevitably follow. A cohesive, unified industry approach to these challenges is therefore vital. It only takes one non-aligned, irresponsible drinks producer to cause immense damage to the industry as a whole. The "alcopops" debacle in the UK a few years ago serves as a salutary lesson.

SAOs have had varying degrees of success in bringing together producers from all areas of the industry. In Europe, as The Amsterdam Group and The Portman Group show, this has been easier to achieve than in the US where the beer and wine sectors have tended to undertake their own initiatives.

Century Council: Ready or Not, Talking with kids about alcohol

Ralph Blackman of The Century Council points out that the ultimate aims of all producers are the same: "fewer or no people dying on the roads and no people under 21 drinking", but they have different methods. However, when it comes to maintaining self-regulation and broadening best practice, differences over how to achieve results are potentially compromising. By the same token, The Portman Group, primarily because of structural changes in the UK drinks business, has virtually no retailer representation. While it stresses that retailers are firmly behind its campaigns, the situation is recognised as hardly ideal, especially as so many current and planned initiatives hinge on intervention at point of sale.

The rhetoric against alcohol remains powerful and sometimes vitriolic, particularly in the US, while there are plenty of advocates in Europe for more legislation rather than self-regulation. The impact on drinks companies' commercial activities cannot be underestimated. It is clear that the industry is acting to combat the problems associated with the misuse of its products, but it is equally clear that, even in the light of significant successes, this is an ongoing project. A united industry voice and a preparedness to make tough choices will be vital to its continued progress.