This month, we present a four-part management briefing into the role the alcoholic drinks industry does play, doesn't play, and ought to play in encouraging responsible consumption. In part one, Ben Cooper looks at the lie of the land today.

The most casual glance at the websites of major drinks corporations reveals that the industry realises it must actively engage in the battle to combat alcohol misuse.

Major companies such as Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller invest millions in corporate responsibility actions while the industry engages collectively through organisations such as the Century Council in the US, the Portman Group and Drinkaware in the UK, MEAS in Ireland and DrinkWise in Australia.

That the industry is extremely active in this area is beyond dispute. However, the debate is not about whether industry has engaged, but whether it should be involved in any activities which could be regarded as de facto public health messaging, if its social responsibility work is compromised by a conflict of interests, and whether the interventions themselves are effective.

The drinks industry's corporate responsibility agenda can essentially be divided into two areas: self-regulation of commercial practices such as advertising and marketing, and corporate responsibility initiatives undertaken by companies. The latter range from support for family education programmes, server training initiatives, supporting screening and brief intervention programmes, and encouraging responsible consumption through practical actions like designated driver initiatives, as well as through advertising and other forms of consumer communication.

Carolyn Panzer, corporate responsibility director at drinks giant Diageo, summarises the motivation behind investment in such corporate responsibility activity. "Irresponsible alcohol use is bad for business. Why do we invest money? We invest money to protect our reputation, the reputation of our brands, (and) to protect our community and our consumers. It is the sustainable thing to do, and it is expected."

That it is "expected" is critical in assessing the motivations behind corporate responsibility actions, as it underlines that this is not elective 'doing good' but a business prerequisite in a highly sensitive market. In essence, the major drinks corporations would find life extremely difficult, and their businesses unsustainable, if they were not doing what they are doing.

Mariann Skar, secretary general of Eurocare (European Alcohol Policy Alliance), an alliance of health organisations which specialises in the alcohol field, believes drinks companies should "stick to their own business", provide "clear consumer information" and leave public health messaging to public health specialists. She concedes, however, that the industry would be heavily criticised were it not engaging in voluntary corporate responsibility activities.

Opposition or scepticism towards industry corporate responsibility action is far from universal. Many national government agencies and the European Commission take a generally positive view of industry engagement in tackling alcohol harm. 

The role of the commercial sector has been officially recognised in the six-year EU alcohol harm strategy which comes to an end this year, notably with the formation of the EU Alcohol and Health Forum, which was set up to foster dialogue and cooperation between all stakeholders. The UK's Public Health Responsibility Deal, announced last year, represented a particularly striking example of industry being welcomed in as a policy partner.

Indeed, the UK has arguably been in the vanguard of corporate responsibility engagement by the alcohol sector for many years, first with the formation of the Portman Group, which became a model for industry-funded social aspects organisations in other countries, and latterly with Drinkaware, an industry-funded charity which aims to provide impartial information to consumers. The Drinkaware model is discussed in the context of industry-sponsored responsible consumption messaging in the third section of this management briefing.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges a role for commercial actors in reducing alcohol harm, even though the WHO's defining position is that the industry should not be engaged as a direct partner with public health agencies in tackling alcohol abuse. 

However, Section 45 (d) of the WHO Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol states: "Economic operators in alcohol production and trade are important players in their role as developers, producers, distributors, marketers and sellers of alcoholic beverages. They are especially encouraged to consider effective ways to prevent and reduce harmful use of alcohol within their core roles mentioned above, including self-regulatory actions and initiatives. They could also contribute by making available data on sales and consumption of alcohol beverages."

While this implies an openness towards the value of industry corporate social responsibility action, the WHO has a fairly long history of scepticism towards voluntary industry engagement and has generally advocated tighter regulatory control. This is reflective of the prevailing scepticism towards the role industry might be able to play in tackling alcohol harm and misuse held by a significant proportion of health NGOs, practitioners and academics.

However, those championing industry-sponsored initiatives believe corporate responsibility actions in the UK have helped slow the rise in alcohol consumption in the last couple of years. 

Pointing to figures from the UK's Office of National Statistics (ONS) which suggest more people are now drinking within government guidelines, Henry Ashworth, CEO of the Portman Group, believes the UK industry deserves credit for the way it has "stepped up" to the challenge, and shown that the drinks industry can be "both profitable and responsible".

Meanwhile, Drinkaware CEO Chris Sorek states: "Our campaigns have just started to show the green shoots of behaviour change. The longer they run and the more we do, I'm sure we will have an even greater impact."

Ashworth also articulates the view often expressed by industry that voluntary action produces faster results than mandated regulation. "I think we shouldn't underestimate just how fast voluntary work can achieve results, in a way that if government had to step in it would be a much slower and not necessarily more effective solution."

Ashworth is co-chair of the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (RDAN). While he acclaims the Responsibility Deal as an example of positive partnership, what happened around the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (RDAN) last year is arguably symptomatic of the lack of rapport between industry and NGO partners.

In March last year, six NGOs, including the British Liver Trust and Alcohol Concern, refused to sign the Responsibility Deal, complaining that the drinks industry pledges were not sufficiently specific or measurable and that the process had prioritised industry views and not considered alternative pledges put forward by the health community. They also said that the need to reduce alcohol-related mortality and morbidity was not being adequately addressed. 

Alcohol Concern said at the time that the Responsibility Deal was "clearly the result of determined drinks industry lobbying coupled with a coalition government in thrall to business".

Ashworth says he hopes some of the NGOs may now return to the RDAN following the unit reduction pledge announced by 34 leading companies last month. "I think now particularly with the unit reduction pledge that some of them may well come back, because the Responsibility Deal has proven that it can put substantial pledges on the table which will make a real difference." Alcohol Concern says it has "no plans" to review its position at the current time. 

Unfortunately, far from demonstrating the capacity of partnership to optimise alcohol policy, the RDAN has demonstrated just how difficult such partnership is to achieve in the drinks sector.

While there are instances of cooperation and partnerships between NGOs and industry, often at a local level, there are far fewer examples of health professionals or organisations partnering or collaborating with drinks companies. Meanwhile, the public debate between the two sides has descended into a fairly bitter and polarised one.

The impasse that now effectively exists between industry and the public health community is discussed in greater depth later in this briefing.

However, the public health lobby's critique of industry CSR engagement does not only centre on whether industry should be involved. It also questions the effectiveness of the industry's interventions. 

While this scepticism extends to many areas of corporate responsibility engagement, the debate over the effectiveness of industry-sponsored responsible consumption messaging, which is discussed in the next two sections of this briefing, is particularly fierce.

To read part of this briefing, click here.