In this month's management briefing, Ben Cooper looks at the alcoholic drinks industry's attempts to reduce alcohol harm and promote responsible consumption. Part one of this four-part briefing considers what many believe to be a tipping point in the ongoing debate.

This is an extremely significant year in the context of the drinks industry's contribution to encouraging responsible consumption and addressing alcohol-related harm.

Last October, the CEOs of 11 drinks companies and two industry associations announced new global commitments aimed at fostering responsible drinking and reducing alcohol harm. While these commitments have a five-year implementation period, with some intermediate target dates for certain elements, the coming year of inception is clearly critical.

Although officially beginning from 1 January, the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments were unveiled at a conference organised by the industry-backed think-tank the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) in Washington DC in October last year, during which 'Global Actions on Harmful Drinking', a programme of industry-backed initiatives which ran between 2010 and 2012, was also reviewed and discussed.

The Global Actions programme stemmed from an earlier commitment made by the chief executives of major drinks companies to target harmful drinking through a combination of global and local actions, focusing in particular on low- and middle-income countries.

While active engagement on alcohol harm and responsible consumption has been part and parcel of how the industry has operated for many years, both the Global Actions programme and the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments represent a specific response to the World Health Organization's 'Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol', launched in 2010. 

Some involvement of industry in a concerted multi-stakeholder approach to tackling alcohol misuse is specifically included in the WHO Strategy. However, exactly how different parties, including WHO and other stakeholders, interpret this is a subject of debate. So, with the launch of the new commitments, 2013 is an important year with regard to industry's engagement in the WHO strategy and its relationship with the WHO, which has not always been an easy one. 

Industry's role in the WHO Strategy and in particular recent remarks on that subject by WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan are discussed later in this briefing.

While there is considerable emphasis on emerging markets in recent industry activity - not least as this is a particular emphasis of the WHO's work - this is also an interesting time for the industry in Europe with regard to its response to alcohol harm. 

Last November saw the merger of CEPS and the European Forum on Responsible Drinking (EFRD) to form SpiritsEurope. Meanwhile, the EU strategy on alcohol harm came to the end of its initial six-year term at the end of 2012. These developments are analysed in the final section of this briefing in relation to intra-industry and multi-stakeholder partnership on responsible consumption and harm mitigation.

The Ten Commitments

Last October, ten global commitments related to responsible marketing and harm mitigation were unveiled by the CEOs of 11 major drinks companies and two Japanese industry groups, namely Anheuser-Busch InBev; Bacardi; Beam Inc; Brewers Association of Japan; Brown-Forman; Carlsberg; Diageo; Heineken; Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association; Molson Coors; Pernod Ricard; SABMiller and The UB Group.

The Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments, which the CEOs undertake to achieve in a five-year timeframe from 1 January 2013, extend over five areas:

  • reducing underage drinking
  • strengthening and expanding marketing codes of practice
  • providing consumer information and responsible product innovation
  • reducing drinking and driving
  • enlisting the support of retailers to reduce harmful drinking

In summary, the signatories have committed to:

  • seek enforcement of underage drinking legislation in all countries where they operate and where a minimum purchase and/or consumption age has been set, and encourage governments to introduce a minimum purchase age where no such laws exist
  • strengthen work with other interested stakeholders to develop, promote and disseminate educational materials and programmes aimed at preventing and reducing underage purchase and consumption
  • take independently-verifiable measures within the next 12 months so that print, electronic, broadcast and digital media in which they advertise have a minimum 70% adult audience ('The 70/30 rule')
  • develop during 2013 a set of global guiding principles for alcohol beverage marketing in digital media
  • take steps over the coming five years to enable non-industry participation in self-regulatory processes that enforce code standards
  • include appropriate contractual language in agreements with advertising agencies, where practicable and legal, to require them to abide by industry responsible marketing and promotional codes
  • not produce products containing excessive amounts of added stimulants and not market any product or promote beverage alcohol combination as delivering energising or stimulating effects
  • develop in two years a standard set of easily understood symbols or equivalent words to discourage drinking and driving, underage consumption, and consumption by pregnant women, all to be applied globally except where similar information is already legally required, prohibited or already provided by voluntary agreements. Over five years, these will be introduced to packaging and a dedicated website with additional information will also be created, with contributions and comments invited from public health experts in developing the website content
  • assess at the end of 2014 pilot projects aimed at discouraging drinking and driving initiated under the Global Actions programme in China, Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia and Vietnam and decide which are successful and locally sustainable. Also, to replicate those proven to be successful in at least six additional countries, focusing on the developing world, over the coming five years
  • invite leading international retailers to join the signatories in launching a responsible retailing initiative, the primary aim of which will be to create guiding principles of responsible beverage alcohol retailing

For full details of the 2013-2018 Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments, click here.

The launch phase

The first few months of 2013 have seen considerable activity in support of the new commitments, according to Marcus Grant, president of International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), which has played a key coordinating role in their development. While it is "very early days" in a 260-week programme, Grant tells just-drinks, "quite a lot of progress" has already been made.

"It was agreed that the first and most important action was to look at how these commitments would work regionally," says Grant. "So, we've organised four regional workshops, one each in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas." The Asia, Africa and Europe workshops have already taken place and the Americas workshop will take place later this month.

In addition, work has begun on the areas that require technical analysis. For example, Grant continues, with regard to the commitment related to levels of stimulants in drinks, research has been commissioned by a group of scientists who will conduct a literature review to determine "a specific numerical recommendation on what will constitute excessive". Grant also stresses that the scientists working on this have "no connection at all with the industry".

Similarly, with regard to the commitment concerning underage drinking, another consultant has been engaged to pull together research on programmes already implemented, including those by governments, industry and NGOs, with the aim of discerning "best practice that could form the basis for the industry commitment going forward".

Background research is also being undertaken in relation to the commitment regarding the afore-mentioned 70/30 rule, looking at how the rule is being applied in relation to TV advertising in seven markets, namely Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Italy, Spain and South Africa.

The CEOs will have their first meeting since the launch of the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments in June, by which time, Grant hopes, there will be "a real sense of momentum". A 'Commitments Management Committee' has also been formed, which had its first meeting in March. This month, Grant is to present the new global commitments to the European Alcohol and Health Forum, the multi-stakeholder forum set up as part of the EU alcohol harm strategy.

For part two of this briefing, click here.