Death among young people through alcohol abuse is something the drinks industry is painfully aware of, and in recent years has introduced self-regulatory measures to combat criticisms. In his second article on the social issues surrounding the industry, Ben Cooper assesses the continuing damage heavyweights such as the WHO can inflict and how the industry is responding.

Two weeks ago the drinks industry received a serious shot across its bows in the shape of the World Health Organisation's European conference on alcohol and young people. It was not so much the tone of the conference, as the attention it received which surprised many and concerned all.

World Health Organisation

The tenor of the conference was predictable, reflecting WHO Europe's pro-regulatory, Scandinavian-influenced stance. But the publicity generated, particularly by statistics relating to alcohol-related deaths among young people cited during the conference, caught the industry a little off-guard and, moreover, hints at a subtle shift in the alcohol policy agenda.

While the WHO's views represent the extreme of public health thinking on alcohol, its capacity to generate hostile media coverage has not been lost on an industry which has hitherto retained a relatively balanced media image.

Two things are now abundantly clear. First, as was always likely, media attention will focus increasingly on the social damage of alcohol abuse particularly as similar stories relating to tobacco cease to be "news". Secondly, any self-regulatory measures will be closely scrutinised. Launching and publicising codes of practice is no longer the prime challenge. When they are being assessed, making them work is all that really counts.

Addressing a working group at the conference, Richard Owen of The Amsterdam Group (TAG), stressed it was the misuse of alcohol not the product itself which was the problem and the industry was playing an active role in combating abuse. Countering assertions made in the conference's opening speech by WHO director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Owen claimed there was no convincing evidence that advertising leads to an increase in overall consumption or abuse. He also stressed TAG's willingness to work with the EC in the implementation of the Council Resolution on the Drinking of Alcohol by Children and Adolescents.

"Legislation is more cumbersome and bureaucratic and more expensive for government"

Jean Coussins, director of the UK's Portman Group, said that, like other social aspects organisations, it was keen to work with the WHO but, in spite of a recommendation from the UK Department of Health, it had not even been granted consultative status by the WHO. While the WHO has worked with industry-funded organisations in other parts of the world, the European office has been particularly resistant to industry involvement.

Self-regulation was therefore never likely to be given great prominence but the conference could nevertheless be a watershed in the regulation/self-regulation debate in the light of a speech given by David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection. While endorsing the WHO's tough stance on abuse, Byrne fell well short of advocating more legislation, pointing out that much could be achieved by simply enforcing current laws. Moreover, he challenged the industry to prove that it could regulate itself. "I have signalled to the industry that they have an opportunity to demonstrate their credentials by acting to enforce their codes."

Byrne's speech was universally welcomed by the industry, no doubt relieved to see self-regulation on the agenda. It had received scant attention during the conference or in the press. "The press coverage suggests there is a real lack of understanding about the successful role self-regulation can play," says Diageo's alcohol policy director, Gaye Pedlow. "It may well be that we need to ensure this track-record is communicated more effectively."

There is a sincere belief among drinks industry professionals that self-regulation in all areas of alcohol policy can be demonstrably effective and offers many advantages over legislation.

Jean Coussins

"The Portman Group Code of Practice has shown that a good instrument of self-regulation can work, to the benefit of all parties," says Coussins. The European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) has argued that "properly designed and well administered self-regulatory systems provide a swift, flexible, inexpensive and effective means of enabling the responsible majority of the industry to restrain the irresponsible minority."

The industry is quick to remind governments that self-regulation can save them money. "If it is well designed and well administered self-regulation tends to be less expensive and quicker and works better," says Allied Domecq's Jan Buckingham, chairman of the Amsterdam Group's executive committee. "Legislation is more cumbersome and bureaucratic and more expensive for government."

Self-regulation enjoys greater "buy-in" from those working in the industry which, say supporters, means there is more respect for the spirit of the code rather than simply the letter of the law. "One of the great things about self-regulation is that it is formed in a partnership," says Buckingham. "It should be possible to recognise the spirit of the law and not push it to the limit and that is what we should be striving to do with our self-regulation."

TAG recently organised a seminar for marketing executives from its member companies aimed at fostering a greater understanding of its Common Standards. "We were stressing the importance of not just trying to get round the thing," says Richard Owen. "This isn't something that some government body has slammed down on us; this is something we have put together ourselves because it's what we ought to do."

But self-regulation by its very nature will enjoy greater backing of those it is seeking to control than legislation from outside. What matters is that once codes of practice are put in place they are assessed as critical from within the industry - as they certainly will be from outside.

David Byrne

"I would only say that effective self-regulation is preferable to government regulation," says Marcus Grant, formerly with the WHO Europe office and now director of the International Center for Alcohol Policy (ICAP). "If self-regulation is only there to stave off government regulation that is not a very good reason for it. Where it is seen not to be effective, governments should intervene with legislation."

The self-regulation debate is entering a critical phase. Launching and communicating the existence of codes of practice was the first step while demonstrating a willingness to act on them, as Byrne's speech underlined, has become paramount. But willingness alone is not enough. There will be few prizes for effort; the industry has to show that self-regulation, when fully supported and acted up, actually does work. If, even with the best will in the world, it does not, the clamour for legislation will become irresistible.

While industry organisations may take issue with some of the WHO's figures, no one denies the problems are there, and they are alarming. Quibbling over exactly how many young people die as a result of alcohol abuse is not a politically wise move for the industry. But if it can point to genuine reductions in the damage misuse does, resulting clearly from its own measures, its position is immeasurably strengthened.