Round-Up -The ICAP 'Global Actions: Initiatives to Reduce Harmful Drinking' Conference - Day II

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While the opening day of the ICAP 'Global Actions: Initiatives to Reduce Harmful Drinking' conference focused on many of the industry-led programmes initiated since 2010 when the WHO 'Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol' was launched, the second day was far more about looking ahead.

In particular, the new commitments from the CEOs of global drinks companies, announced by Pernod Ricard CEO Pierre Pringuet, clearly aim to take industry engagement on the issue to a new level.

The commitments cover underage drinking; strengthening marketing codes of practice; providing consumer information and responsible product innovation; reducing drinking and driving; and last, but definitely not least, engaging with retailers to reduce harmful drinking.

To a significant degree, these commitments reflect the key areas of discussion during the past two days. The non-attendance of health NGOs and the WHO was clearly a concern for many attendees, but so was the scant representation from retailers.

The fifth commitment speaks to the strong desire of the Global Alcohol Producers Group (GAPG) to have closer engagement and collaboration with retailer groups, which, industry-affiliated and independent experts acknowledge, will be vital to optimise industry action on alcohol misuse going forward.

On the final undertaking, the major producers have committed to invite leading international retailers, with whom they have existing commercial relationships, to join in developing "guiding principles of responsible beverage alcohol retailing". These will focus on identifying best practice guidelines around discouraging irresponsible promotions, encouraging responsible point-of-sale marketing and promotion, and "appropriate retailer undertakings" on responsible selling of alcohol.

The second day was not all about the new commitments, however. In the morning, GAPG director general Mark Leverton chaired a panel discussion with senior government officials from Ghana and Thailand, underlining how industry is working in direct collaboration with government departments, particularly in developing markets.

Non-industry and government representatives also featured prominently in the breakout sessions that followed, covering drink driving, non-commercial alcohol, self-regulation and social aspects organisations. 

The final panel of the conference, hosted by ICAP president Marcus Grant, also looked to the future, in particular how industry will increasingly have to show concrete results from initiatives rather than simply demonstrate that it is being active. 

During this session, the conference heard - and not for the first time this week - some strident views expressed by former Portman Group chief Jean Coussins about how the industry should engage in the debate with opponents, in particular urging companies to disclose more information and rely less on "emotional" responses. Coussins also mentioned in passing that the famous Paragraph 45/d of the WHO alcohol strategy not only encourages industry action but also calls on industry to provide information on sales and consumption.

The thrust of what Coussins was saying appeared to centre on integrating the industry's consumption/alcohol harm prevention work fully into the notion of corporate sustainability, which links environmental and social responsibility with profitability.

In spite of the fact that responsible consumption work resides within companies' corporate responsibility platforms, Coussins' suggestion that it has not been truly integrated into the sustainability mission - with its three elements of profit, people, planet - is noteworthy.

Her words bear repetition because they came from the former head of the Portman Group, the model for industry-funded social aspects organisations and one of the organisations that helped shape the industry's responsible consumption mission.

Coussins said: "The trouble is that the industry is so often just not believed when it says "we want to support actions to tackle harmful drinking"."

The "bottom line" for the sceptics, Coussins said, is "we can't trust you because there is this inherent conflict of interest. Your raison d'etre is to make more profit and you make more profit by selling as much drink as possible to as many people as possible, and therefore excessive consumption is in your interests."

Coussins continued: "I don't think that's true, but I think that the industry has got to demonstrate that it's not true. An emotional response is not good enough. You can't just say "we're parents too, we've got children, so we have a community of interests". The industry has got to produce the data and the metrics to demonstrate that it is in its economic long-term interests as a group of sustainable companies not to have consumers drinking irresponsibly. You've got to find a way of making data on sales correlate with data on consumption, and somehow show that there is a rock-hard business case for getting rid of harmful drinking because that's in your long-term interests."

One highly-placed insider said after that session that he doubted industry really did have the kind of data that Coussins said it must produce. While Coussins' tough love may have been somewhat sobering, the two days still ended on a very positive note for industry delegates.

Unveiling the commitments at the end - with the appearance of a third major CEO - brought the conference to a rousing conclusion. Industry professionals left in upbeat mood while attendees from outside the sector departed with the message that the industry's push on alcohol misuse is being stepped up ringing in their ears.

For a review of the first day of the ICAP conference, click here.

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