The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) recently introduced new guidelines for the responsible promotion of alcohol. Ben Cooper spoke with the BBPA's director of communications, Mark Hastings, about the new code and what it sets out to do.

A bold self-regulatory initiative introduced recently in the UK aims to tackle one of the key areas of alcohol-related harm, and one of the prime concerns of the UK government - namely binge-drinking. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) aims to tackle the problem by limiting excessive and irresponsible promotions in bars and pubs.

As with many self-regulatory initiatives, there has been a degree of scepticism but in working closely with government and police, the BBPA hopes to be able to set a benchmark for responsible promotion, even extending beyond its own membership, which accounts for a just over half the pubs and bars in the UK.

The BBPA issued new guidelines last month to its members which prohibit a range of special offers and marketing techniques that contribute to alcohol abuse, such as "women drink free" promotions, drinking games and offers where customers can drink as much as they want for a flat fee. In particular, Happy Hours are a focus of the new guidelines because they encourage consumers to drink a lot in a short space of time.

One of the immediate problems which hit the new initiative was the question of whether they outlawed the Happy Hour once and for all. The categorisation of the "Happy Hour" in this instance is fairly specific, referring to time-limited promotions where drinking at speed is encouraged. Other "Happy Hour-style" promotions, particularly aimed at the after-work drinking market, may not necessarily fall foul of the new guidelines, Mark Hastings, director of communications at the BBPA told just-drinks.

"The Happy Hour is itself is banned, as are a further 16 types of promotion that encourage excessive drinking," Hastings said. "Happy Hour has become a catch-all term to describe different sorts of promotion and clearly what we can't do, shouldn't do and have not set out to do is attempt to ban all promotions." While the BBPA is aware of the problems of such codes contravening the principles of free trade, it says promotions such as "pay £10 on the door and all drinks are free", drinking games, and schemes that encourage people to drink too much too quickly need to be outlawed.

Another perceived weakness of the new guidelines is that while the BBPA represents 32,500 pubs in the UK, that still leaves around 27,000 outlets which it does not speak for. But, as Hastings pointed out, that does not mean that the guidelines will not extend to those outlets. "With the backing of the Government, the police and licensing authorities, we aim to ensure that all pubs operate to these standards of corporate and community social responsibility," he said.

"The reason we published them was precisely to say to police and licensing authorities that these are the standards we believe should be adhered to by everyone, and therefore we will be anticipating that you will use these as the benchmark across the industry," Hastings said.

Along with related initiatives such as Alcohol Disorder Zones, the BBPA guidelines fit with the UK government's approach of attempting to deal with problems by combining the efforts of different agencies, both public and private - so-called "joined-up government".

However, already less than a couple of weeks into the life of the new guidelines, press reports have emerged of the continuation of precisely the kind of irresponsible marketing which the guidelines seek to outlaw. This weekend, the UK national newspaper, The Sunday Times, reported specific and numerous incidences of the guidelines being flouted. The BBPA said in response that it would investigate alleged incidences of its members contravening the new guidelines. Hastings added that some of the journalists assessing the guidelines had misinterpreted what they set out to do. But the guidelines themselves are inevitably open to a degree of interpretation which could make enforcement problematic.

As Hastings put it: "Responsible promotions do have an important role to play in a pub business and are in the interests of consumers. But irresponsible promotions damage the reputation of the sector, drive down quality and standards and have no place in a well-managed licensed business."

Also underlining the "joined-up" credentials of the new code, Hastings stressed that the BBPA guidelines are also embodied in the new Licensing Act which will come into force in November. He believes that enforcement of the guidelines will come through the application of revised law on the sale of alcohol.

Hastings also added that he believed contravention of the new guidelines would be more a question of individual rather than corporate failure. In other words, the BBPA is confident that its member companies are behind both the spirit and letter of the new guidelines. This faith in its corporate members may be viewed as over-optimistic by those who retain a rather more sceptical view of self-regulation, but once again Hastings stressed that the guidelines will be enforceable through the Licensing Act too. "All our member companies have committed to operate by those standards so they are the enforcers. Even more critically it becomes enforced through the Licensing Act," Hastings said, adding that while "there would be of course breaches, mistakes, and people falling short of the standards", the guidelines represented "a significant step forward".