Insight - Drinks makers seek to silence "extremists" in WHO talks
Alcoholic drinks firms are hoping to avoid a global call for "extreme" legislation to tackle alcohol abuse by outlining the ways industry can help to tackle the problem.
There is concern among drinks companies that the industry is being sidelined in a debate on excess alcohol consumption, currently underway at the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It is hoped that yesterday's (26 November) launch of the book 'Working Together to Reduce Harmful Drinking', published by the industry-funded International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), will help to address the problem.
"We've not shied away from tackling thorny issues such as alcohol marketing or the role of pricing," said Diageo CEO Paul Walsh, who spoke alongside SABMiller CEO Graham Mackay at the launch event in London.
"Granted, we have views about the efficacy of increasing prices or banning marketing...but we also offer a slate of areas where alcohol producers could be involved more and have a real impact," said Walsh.
The book, which is aimed at policymakers, health campaigners and industry, comes less than a month before the WHO is expected to publish a draft version of its 'global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol'.
Both Walsh and Mackay spoke of "extremists" among public health campaigners, who are "actively lobbying" to see the drinks industry excluded from the debate.
The launch of this book coincides with a tacit admission by industry leaders that the sector has not been proactive enough in tackling problem drinking. Too often, drinks firms have been caught on the backfoot by this proposal or that.
There is also concern that the WHO, which could officially adopt proposals on alcohol by May next year, may recommend stringent legislation. There are whisperings that the body is set to recommend minimum pricing. While WHO recommendations are not legally binding on member states, its prestige can give it significant sway on national policy.
"The proposals will address pricing, they will address availability, they will address marketing," Marcus Grant, the book's co-author and previous employee of the WHO, told just-drinks yesterday.
"I think the industry would be prepared to accept reasonable legislation, but it is important to show why legislation should not be excessive," said Grant, who is chairman of ICAP body the Centre for Information on Beverage Alcohol.
According to the book, seen by just-drinks, reasonable legislation includes measures such as licensing of retail outlets, purchase age restrictions and laws on drink-driving.
National drinks bodies should also "encourage governments to enforce existing laws and regulations, backed by appropriate penalties", writes Grant and co-author Mark Leverton in the final chapter of the book. Incidentally, Leverton advises Diageo on its responsible drinking policy.
ICAP's general approach is ardently in favour of self-regulation. The authors call on drinks producers to actively promote responsible drinking, push for industry marketing codes in different countries and work on lower alcohol drinks as an alternative to existing products - where market demand exists.
Critics argue that selling shots of vodka for GBP1 (US$1.65) each or failing to prevent cans of lager being sold at equivalent to GBP0.50 each in retailers shows that the industry is not capable of getting its house in order.
It is up to the industry to prove those critics wrong.
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