Just the Answer – Alan Butler

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The European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD) has a key role to play in articulating the industry view on EU alcohol policy, particularly as it awaits publication of the Commission's Communication on alcohol. In this month's Just the Answer interview, Alan Butler, EU corporate relations director at Diageo and EFRD chairman, outlines the trade body's primary concerns regarding current and future EU policy.

J-D: EFRD has seven members - Bacardi-Martini, Brown-Forman, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Moet Hennessy, Remy Cointreau and V&S Group. How does EFRD feel about its membership and is it looking to increase this number?

Butler: We're not unduly concerned about the number of members. The ethos behind the organisation is that like-minded corporations that want to set an agenda on responsible alcohol consumption and responsible advertising come together through that agenda, so the fact that we have seven is, I think for us, a sufficient critical mass. They are amongst the seven largest - by volume and by turnover - spirits producers operating in Europe and, to a large extent, the top five globally. So that gives us sufficient critical mass as well as a broad enough field of vision for pursuing the agenda in Europe and also an awareness of our global exposure to alcohol and society issues. We're not unduly concerned about the number of members - it's the quality of membership for us that is material.

J-D: Would it not help clarify the differing regional attitudes to alcohol around Europe by having more national, as opposed to multinational, members?

Butler: Well, of course, we're not the only operator on the landscape for alcohol in society issues. At EU level you have the trade associations representing industries more generally. You have CEPS for the spirits industry, Comité du Vin for the wine sector and Brewers of Europe.

We're a company-driven organisation which sets standards for its members as well as advocating certain alcohol policies. We do have Bacardi-Martini as a member with more of a southern Mediterranean perspective; Pernod Ricard has a fairly balanced exposure to continental Europe. We have Vin & Sprit and Diageo, which give more of a Northern European perspective, and we have Brown-Forman, which brings more of a multinational, external US picture. So I think the balance of the membership brings the perspective but it's really the scientific analysis which determines our perspective rather than the companies' cultures.

J-D: How is the relationship with the new Finnish EU presidency developing?

Butler: We have a number of issues there. One is the Finnish presidency which has the stated aspiration for health in all policies, of which, clearly, the health perspective will inform their approach on alcohol. As a responsible drinking organisation, we tend not to get involved in the questions about the minimum rates review so we wouldn't typically express a view on the minimum rates for alcohol and excise which is what the Finns are pursuing. From a responsible drinking perspective, however, we would say that higher taxes are not necessarily a good way to target alcohol harm. The evidence does not show that higher taxation necessarily reduces alcohol harm in society. Our recommendation would always be that if you want to target alcohol harm then you target the 6% of the adult population that drink to harmful levels rather than increase the price of alcohol for everybody.

J-D: How concerned are you about Europe's reputation for using legislation in place of self-regulation of industries?

Butler: I think that legislation and self-regulation are not alternatives. The majority of member states, including the UK, recognise that you have to strike a balance between the different ideologies and competing interests. For the vast majority of governments, the 94% of the population that consume responsibly are the bellwethers for their policies. Member states are already free to do everything that we've discussed - they don't need European authority. But I think that Europe may fail to take the opportunity to embrace forward-looking and modern methods of targeting alcohol harm, and may instead just default to the loudest member state or the noisiest agenda from the anti-alcohol lobby. Particularly, the Nordic governments have been very strong in recommending higher taxation, restrictions on availability of alcohol and restrictions on marketing.

I think the EU, whilst this time around it may not endorse a legislative agenda through the forthcoming Alcohol Related Harm Strategy, it may very well be seduced into making those same claims because that's easy, as some member states are asking for it. But I don't think the UK will be required automatically to implement any legislation.

J-D: The European Commission is expected to publish its review of alcohol policy next month. How is it looking from the EFRD position?

Butler: Some drafts of the Commission's proposal are currently knocking around, but come the middle of October this will become a Communication and not a legislative text. This may run to eight to 12 pages and will have a mix of actions the Commission recommends to member states, actions that the Commission will undertake and actions that it encourages industry or other stakeholders to undertake. The main concerns for us remain the targeting of alcohol in general rather than alcohol harm - so, any references to taxation and restrictions on advertising, and proposals for health warnings which we don't believe work.

I'm aware of some of the contents, and there's still work to be done. The proposals have been knocking around for about a year, and there's still bad science in there. There are also still areas which potentially encroach upon the competence of the member states. In some areas, the contribution of the industry has been under-represented and, fundamentally, there are still indicators that it is a strategy that talks about alcohol more often than it talks about alcohol-related harm.

It's difficult to be certain about what the subsequent changes will look like. Our ambition is for a strategy that works, that is based on sound science and that respects the cultural diversity of Europe, but gives member states something usable and helpful and is, therefore, a positive contribution to alcohol strategies and reducing alcohol-related harm. I think it will fall some way short of that ambition, and our concerns are around those three areas - taxation, advertising restrictions and warning labels. The extent to which the member states between now and October will dilute, appease or resolve those concerns is open to question, but certainly they are now paying more attention to the issue.

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