This month, we present a four-part management briefing into the role the alcoholic drinks industry does play, doesn't play, and ought to play in encouraging responsible consumption. The final part looks at the ongoing battle the industry faces with the health lobby.

Now is a timely moment to be looking at the issue of how the drinks industry fosters responsible consumption of its products.

This month saw the launch of the European Responsible Marketing Pact, through which a group of leading beer, wine and spirits companies, namely A-B InBev, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard and SABMiller, have pledged to agree and implement common standards for responsible advertising and marketing aimed at adults of legal purchase age. 

Developed in partnership with the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), the EU and national associations, the standards will be subject to external scrutiny through independent monitoring and public reporting.

The European Responsible Marketing Pact covers three areas: common standards for age controls to prevent minors from viewing alcohol marketing communications in social media channels; establishing a common standard that ads may only be placed in media where at least 70% of the audience is reasonably expected to be above legal purchase age; and prohibit any alcohol beverage marketing communications that might be particularly attractive to minors by ensuring that the content of ads appeals primarily to adults.

While the agreement was hailed as a "major milestone in responsible marketing" by Andrew Morgan, president of Diageo Europe, health NGOs were once again unimpressed by the industry's self-regulatory efforts. 

"The content of this pact is basically the old ineffective measures of self-regulation in a new package," Eurocare said. "Policymakers must not rely on self-regulation, but rather follow up through more statutory measures to protect the consumers."

Malte Lohan, director of public affairs at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), concedes that some of these standards are already in place in certain codes but insists the agreement "represents real progress", in that it brings together companies from all three alcohol sectors to agree common standards. The signatory companies account for more than 50% of the total drinks ad spend in the EU.

Lohan also believes the monitoring processes included in the Pact represent a significant step forward. Once the standards have been officially agreed, implementation and compliance is to be independently monitored by Accenture and national advertising self-regulatory organisations (SROs) across Europe. Results of that monitoring process will be publicly reported. Sanctions resulting from the monitoring process could include public naming and shaming, insisting on mandatory pre-clearance for future campaigns and referral to national regulatory authorities in cases of repeat offences.

The launch of the European Responsible Marketing Pact follows the agreement last December of Guiding Principles for Responsible Beverage Alcohol Marketing by the sponsoring companies of the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), the US-based industry-funded think-tank.

The principles were developed in association with the Global Actions on Harmful Drinking programme, for which ICAP is also the lead organisation. The Global Actions initiative resulted from a collective commitment by the CEOs of leading international drinks companies to increase voluntary efforts to foster responsible consumption, focusing on three critical areas, self-regulation of advertising, drink driving and non-commercial alcohol, in 18 low- and middle-income countries.

Industry representatives hail these recent agreements as reflecting how the drinks industry is both aspiring to higher standards of corporate responsibility and coordinating and harmonising their efforts internationally.

There is much more of "a global consciousness" around the industry's voluntary actions to reduce alcohol harm, says Marjana Martinic, vice president at ICAP. "There really is a view that CSR extends beyond national and regional borders."

The greater international coordination is also a response to the WHO global alcohol strategy. "It fits in very well in my view with what is being asked of industry through the WHO global strategy," says Martinic. "It's calling the industry to action but calling them to action in a global way and they're really stepping up."

Interestingly, it has been observed that the NGOs which have been critical of the industry's activities have themselves been successful in developing international networks, which has greatly increased their lobbying and campaigning capabilities. 

"The NGOs and pressure groups have been very effective at creating these global networks and aligning their messages," says Lohan. "And in a way we can admire that because they have been doing that with very limited resources."

Indeed, international networking by NGOs may have been a contributory factor behind the greater international coordination of CSR efforts being seen in the global drinks industry. As Martinic puts it: "If industry feels it's being scrutinised at a global level, it's going to respond at a global level."

In the case of the European Responsible Marketing Pact (ERMP), international coordination has also been fostered by the European Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF), a multi-stakeholder forum set up under the EU's alcohol strategy and chaired by the European Commission. "This [the ERMP] might have happened but I'm sure it would not have happened so quickly without the Alcohol and Health Forum," says Lohan.

The aim of the Forum was to bring together alcohol beverage producers, civil society and consumer representatives, the medical profession, the advertising and retail sectors and others to promote voluntary actions to help reduce alcohol-related harm in Europe.

As a commitment under the EAHF, the partners in the European Responsible Marketing Pact have to comply with the monitoring and reporting requirements stipulated under the terms of the EAHF. It will be subject to continuous oversight by the European Commission. The WFA will present a first progress report on implementation and compliance with the agreed common standards by June 2013, with a final report due by February 2015.

The current EU alcohol strategy comes to an end this year, and discussion of future directions for coordinating an EU-wide approach to alcohol harm reduction and supporting member states in framing and implementing alcohol policy is underway. The future of the EAHF will be part of that discussion.

To a degree, the history of the EAHF illustrates the underlying state of the debate between the drinks industry and the public health community. 

As the European Responsible Marketing Pact arguably shows, the EAHF has been able to facilitate partnership and progress within one stakeholder group. Mariann Skar, secretary general of Eurocare, says it had also resulted in increased cooperation among NGOs. However, it was conspicuously less successful in fostering partnership between NGOs and industry.

Nevertheless, Lohan views the EAHF as an "incredibly important" part of the strategy and, in common with representatives from both sides of the debate, hopes that it will continue, perhaps with some adjustments and improvements based on the experience so far. 

"An element where the forum might be improved is better collaboration with industry and non-industry partners," he says. "Right now you still have very segmented approaches. This [the ERMP] is in a way the most ambitious partnership so far but it's still an industry partnership. What I think we are lacking is the different parts of the forum collaborating. If it's something we could do more of in a future forum it would certainly be a significant improvement."

The lack of collaboration between industry and health stakeholders in the EAHF mirrors the prevailing situation in the wider debate and is perhaps not that surprising.

While there is evidence of greater coordination among industry stakeholders regarding corporate responsibility and responsible marketing, particularly across the different alcohol sectors, the glaring absence of cooperation and collaboration between industry and the public health community remains a feature of the responsible drinking debate.

Is there any strong likelihood of that changing in the coming few years? The prevailing view from both sides is that it is unlikely, and there is a one fundamental reason why.

When two sides take fairly entrenched positions in debates, it is generally the case that both sides probably need to compromise, and this may indeed be the case with certain aspects of the alcohol policy debate. However, there is a pronounced difference between the attitude of the two sides to the idea of cooperation and partnership.

In its rhetoric at least, the industry presents a very open view towards collaboration with health stakeholders, but the health NGOs cannot reciprocate because their position is that industry engagement in matters related to public health is simply not appropriate.

In other words, the industry's current engagement in responsible consumption messaging, which is a central pillar of its entire corporate responsibility effort, is morally questionable. It is ironic that an attempt to be 'part of the solution' is itself viewed by some external stakeholders as 'part of the problem'.

To head back to part three, click here.