Self-regulation and responsible business practice have become a virtual mantra for major drinks companies. But at a recent conference organised by The Amsterdam Group, delegates heard how the industry must move forward in these areas from none other than Robert Madelin, director general of the EU Commission's DG Sanco. Olly Wehring reports.

The drinks industry has realised for some time that it needs to project a responsible outlook in order to forestall further legislation by governments and possibly the EU. At the Second European Forum for Responsible Drinking, organised by The Amsterdam Group, industry delegates were given some useful insights into what legislators and policymakers are expecting from it by Robert Madelin, director general of DG Sanco, the health and consumer protection department of the EU Commission.

Madelin looked at the current situation continent-wide regarding the burden alcohol has placed on its citizens and its current trends. He then turned to look at what is to be done by the industry to at least ease the pressure of responsibility. In doing so, Madelin held a mirror up to an industry which needs to act faster than it has done on a subject that clearly is deteriorating.

Hearing that Madelin does "not believe that we have the mandate within the EU to pursue a nanny state" must have been heartening for drinks marketers, and his presence at this industry-sponsored conference served to emphasise the major role the drinks industry has to play in this issue going forward.

By way of highlighting the growing problem that alcohol is becoming, Madelin looked first at the disease burden in developed countries attributable to selected leading risk factors in 2000. Although tobacco was the clear leader, with blood pressure second, alcohol held the bronze medal position, with just under 20m disability-adjusted life years. This put alcohol ahead of such dangers as cholesterol, illicit drugs and unsafe sex. Looking more specifically at the World Health Organisation regions, the figures showed that alcohol was a more prevalent risk factor in Europe than in any other region.

Madelin then looked at drinking trends within the European region. A graph indicating changes in the consumption of any alcoholic beverages 20 times or more by European students during the last 12 months in 1995 compared to 1999 showed where the danger signs are. In Norway, Estonia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Poland and most markedly the Czech Republic, Malta, the UK, Ireland and Denmark, prevalence rates had increased. In Italy and Cyprus, they were well below average, while Finland, Croatia, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland, Hungary, Ukraine and the Faroe Isles hovered around average levels.

A graph showing prevalence of binge drinking (students who had consumed more than five alcoholic beverages in one sitting three times or more in the last 30 days) in 1995 compared to 1999 followed a similar pattern. Croatia, Estonia, Iceland, Malta, Norway, Slovenia, Poland, Denmark, the UK and Ireland all scored above average.

So with the battle lines drawn geographically, Madelin looked at the current hot topics regarding alcohol in Europe. Taxation remains a hot potato, with the impacts of tax decreases in countries such as Finland and Poland, countries where cheap imports are compromising domestic sales and the alcopop-concerned Germany and France. European enlargement this year has pushed taxation higher up the agenda for member states' governments. Health-related issues are also at the fore, with Madelin highlighting the advice given to pregnant mothers not to drink alcohol at all as an example of this.

But it is in the area of young people and alcohol, especially the binge drinking epidemic that hits newspapers in the UK on an almost-daily basis, that Madelin suggested the industry could do most. In our first feature on the conference (/features_detail.asp?art=999) research was taken from a survey conducted in 1999 in 30 European countries. The results of the next survey are due by the end of this year. The importance of this survey can not be overstated and, with the industry holding events such as this conference, the drinks companies know it.

"For a common European strategy," Madelin said, "seven key areas need to be addressed." Drinking and driving, under-age drinking, commercial communication and consumer information need to be considered, along with the availability of alcohol, the protection of third parties, especially families and children, and the exchange of information, data and research. So what contribution can business make to this agenda?

"A question the drinks businesses must ask themselves is, 'Do people trust you?'" Madelin challenged. Will the economic operators in the industry commit to a measurable and sustainable increase in the amount of staff time and money they put into proactive, good and responsible conduct, Madelin added. "In other words, are you doing enough?"

Madelin asked two more questions, namely, "Will the economic operators agree to sit with all other interested parties in drawing up benchmarks for these codes of conduct or strategies?" and "Will these economic operators accept independent parties as part of the process to verify performance and outcomes against the agreed benchmark, and adjust objectives accordingly?" It is the drinks industry's answers to these all important questions, Madelin said, that will decide how clear its conscience is when dealing with this thorny issue.

Madelin concluded by challenging the drinks industry on three main fronts. "Say you will do more. Agree what to do with other stakeholders. Verify and evaluate performance with other stakeholders." While taking up this gauntlet provides its fair share of problems, it would appear that the industry has little choice but to get its house in order in this area, and fast. The conference explained not only the situation as it is, but also suggested ways of combating it. The industry has the tools - only time will tell if it intends to use them.