The director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) today launched a scathing attack on the marketing strategies of Europe's drinks companies, in the opening speech of the WHO European Ministerial Conference on Young People and Alcohol.

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland spoke of her "fury" and "feeling of manipulation" over the "marketing techniques that are being used to introduce alcohol to very young people."

She quoted the WHO European Charter on alcohol adopted in 1995, which "explicitly states that 'all children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcoholic consumption and to the extent possible, from the promotion of alcoholic beverages' ".

But she continued: "Sadly this is becoming increasingly difficult. Not only are children growing up in an environment where they are bombarded with positive images of alcohol, but our youth are a key target of the marketing practices of the alcohol industry.

"When large marketing resources are directed towards influencing youth behaviour, creating a balanced and healthy attitude to alcohol becomes increasingly difficult."

Brundtland highlighted the fact that in Europe one in four deaths in men aged between 15 and 29 is related to alcohol. In all, 55,000 young people in Europe died from causes related to alcohol in 1999.

Furthermore she said: "There are alarming signs of deteriorating drinking habits among young people across the whole region."

Brundtland said action must be taken to counter the negative trends of alcohol abuse. And, she called for a concerted review by international experts on the issue of marketing and promotion of alcohol to young people.

A meeting has been scheduled later in the year in collaboration with the government of Valencia, Spain to move the issue forward.