Drinkaware was formed back in 2008

Drinkaware was formed back in 2008

Over the past two years, the name Drinkaware has become a familiar feature on drinks labels in the UK. Drinkaware’s chief executive Chris Sorek spoke with Ben Cooper about what the industry-sponsored alcohol education charity does.

As the UK government decides whether to give the drinks industry more time to comply with voluntary alcohol labelling requirements, the industry benefits from being able to show it is acting responsibly and doing what it can to mitigate the harm its products are capable of causing.

Department of Health research into the implementation of a 2007 voluntary agreement on alcohol labelling suggests the industry has not covered itself in glory. However, while compliance with all the stipulated criteria was disappointing, the performance was appreciably better with regard to the use of Drinkaware messaging on labels.

Launched in 2008, Drinkaware is a charity supported by voluntary donations from drinks producers and retailers, with an annual budget of GBP5m. It aims to educate people about responsible alcohol consumption, help tackle alcohol misuse and fund research. In addition to its campaigns, Drinkaware gets its message across by having its website address included on alcohol labels.

A reference to Drinkaware now appears on some 3 billion bottles, cans, advertisements and other materials on an annual basis. Last year, its website had around 1.6m hits, and in the first six months of this year it has already had 1.3m. The forecast for this year is 2m.

Campaigners are wary about industry involvement in public health messaging, but chief executive Chris Sorek stresses that Drinkaware operates independently from industry, with a board composed of five drinks industry representatives, five medical and public health professionals and three independents.

"It is the board that sets direction and so since industry does not have a majority on that, neither does the public health community, they come to an agreement about what’s best in terms of communicating to consumers,” Sorek says. “We’ve got people on our board from the public health community that I don’t think would be there if they didn’t think that they were doing the right thing.”

Among the current Drinkaware trustees are Professor David Foxcroft of the School of Health and Social Care at Oxford Brookes University; Dr Michael Wilks, president of the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME); and Dr Nick Sheron, head of Clinical Hepatology at Southampton General Hospital.

Chris Sorek, chief executive of alcohol-education charity Drinkaware

Sorek also stresses that Drinkaware has a different perspective from some other alcohol charities. Rather than focusing on issues such as dependence it concentrates on providing information to allow people to consume alcohol responsibly. “We start from the perspective that if you are going to be drinking this is what you need to,” Sorek says. “We’re not telling people not to drink but that if you are going to drink, here’s what you need to consider.” 

The website and Drinkaware campaigns such as ‘Why let good times go bad’ aim to give people tips on the dangers of drinking too much and how to avoid getting into trouble while drinking. Sorek agrees that having an overall premise that drinking is not in itself pathological but ‘part of our national culture’, as the website puts it, while explaining how dangers can be avoided, is a position people, particularly young adults, may relate to more readily than a more proscriptive message.

Clearly an acceptance that there is nothing wrong with responsible alcohol consumption would have to lie at the heart of an industry-backed programme. And whatever misgivings other stakeholders may have about industry involvement in this area, Drinkaware clearly benefits in some ways from its close connection with industry. “We come up with the strategy and messaging, we don’t go to the industry to do that,” Sorek says. “But the industry is very much involved, and thankfully, in getting that information out to consumers.”

The industry-funded budget allows a substantial amount of media activity, while the Department of Health’s own research bears out that drinks companies have been keen to associate themselves with Drinkaware by putting its branding on bottles and cans. “The numbers show that for all intents and purposes we are, just by the sheer numbers of people coming to the website and what we’re getting in terms of media coverage, the place where people go to for information on alcohol,” Sorek says.

The Department of Health commissioned Campden BRI to survey compliance with voluntary requirements on labelling agreed with industry. While the take-up was low overall, the performance of Drinkaware was appreciably higher. The presence of Drinkaware branding on labelling rose from 46.3% in 2008 to 57.9% in 2009.

However, the Campden research reveals that reference to Drinkaware on labelling is much higher for some categories than others.  For flavoured alcohol beverages, it was 81.4%, for cider and perry 90.1% and for beer it was 81.5%. But for spirits it was only 51.1% and for wine it was 38.8%.  Also the figures show a generally higher level of Drinkaware compliance by major brands and own labels than by minor brands.

This is not a surprising problem. Larger companies and major retailers have not only the resources to invest heavily in these forms of activity but they also have much more to lose in reputational terms by not doing so, being larger targets for adverse media attention. Sorek says having consistent labelling across all alcoholic drinks is important and that this is something the Government is seeking to address through its labelling consultation.

The variations between categories notwithstanding, the coverage Drinkaware has obtained overall is clearly a help to industry as it seeks to reach a new voluntary agreement on labelling with the Department of Health.

In 1989, the UK set the pattern for self-regulation in the drinks sector with the formation of the Portman Group. Two decades later, Drinkaware seems to be doing the same with industry involvement in alcohol education and responsibility messaging.

Sorek certainly believes Drinkaware can be a model for other countries. “We’ve been asked by people as far afield as Australia and other places in Europe about how we’re set up and how we’re run, and there’s been a lot of very keen interest."