Management Briefing

Industry Engagement on Alcohol Harm & Responsible Consumption - Part II: Reaction to the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments

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Part two of this month's four-part briefing looks at the varying reactions to the drinks industry's commitments, issued late last year.

Given that the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments only came into operation on 1 January and remain very much in their launch phase, the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) and the Global Alcohol Producers Group (GAPG), the two lead co-ordinating organisations, were not anticipating a huge external response at this stage.

They stress that, while preliminary work is being carried out, such as the research to determine best practice in implementing the 70/30 rule and guidelines for digital marketing, communication around the commitments has been relatively low-key.

"For most of the world," says Mark Leverton, director general of GAPG, "we made an announcement. Since that announcement we have been very busy putting things in place. But, there's not a lot yet that's very visible to be seen by external parties."

Nevertheless, such initial reaction that there has been, from industry and non-industry stakeholders alike, is telling and extremely instructive, arguably for differing reasons.

Positive industry reaction

While it may be axiomatic that the most positive reaction might come from other elements in the drinks industry, the support and interest shown by other industry stakeholders, both from other companies and industry trade associations, has been greater than anticipated.

ICAP president Marcus Grant says the signing of the commitments has created "a sense of momentum within the industry", and now major trade associations are asking "what is our role going to be". The relationship between the collective industry response through trade associations and what is done by major multinational players is discussed in a European context in the final section of this briefing.

"I think we were a little surprised and quite gratified by the extent of a broader industry interest in the commitments," Grant adds.

Indeed, Leverton says there has already been some interest shown by other companies about signing up to the commitments. "We have had some expressions of interest, one or two private discussions and enquiries," he tells just-drinks.

"We very much hope that other companies will wish to join the original 13 and there's nothing standing in their way provided they are able to provide the same level of commitment," Leverton continues, adding that he does expect others to join in due course. "I think it might be gradual. Others might be watching what we do in terms of implementation, how we make progress, but I think, as these commitments gather momentum, others will want to be part of it, and, as they see them being successful, I am sure they will want to share that success."

The GAPA Statement of Concern

Just as a relatively positive response from elsewhere in the industry might be expected, in the current climate of the debate on alcohol harm, a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from a certain contingent of health NGOs, academics and medical professionals could also have been widely predicted.

In common with industry, the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA) has also focused its efforts around the World Health Organization's 'Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol'. 

However, while industry has framed its response in the context of a section of the strategy that endorses the involvement of alcohol companies, GAPA has focused on concerns over what it perceives to be a fundamental conflict of interest between the marketing and selling of alcohol, and acting in the public interest to limit alcohol harm. The GAPA 'Statement of Concern' includes recommendations to member states, to the WHO itself, to alcohol companies and to NGOs.

Far from welcoming industry's willingness to participate in tackling the problems, GAPA says the global producers' activities in support of the WHO strategy are "compromising the work of public health experts, the WHO, its regional offices and the NGOs working in the public health area to deal with the global burden of disease attributable to alcohol".

The 'Statement of Concern' says that, while some would argue that any efforts to promote alcohol control policies should be welcomed, the global producers have "a clear conflict of interest" and "no competence" to carry out research or policy analysis or other work related to public health issues. In conclusion, GAPA suggests that industry has misinterpreted the WHO's strategy as it relates to the role of commercial operators, and that industry should have "no role in the formation of national and international public health policies".

GAPA chairman Derek Rutherford was contacted by just-drinks to be interviewed for this briefing but did not respond. However, the Statement of Concern sets out GAPA's viewpoint in considerable detail and can be viewed in full here.

Given the deadlocked and polarised nature of the debate around industry's role in alcohol harm mitigations, industry representatives have become accustomed to issuing rebuttals to the concerns raised by GAPA. 

"Frankly there's nothing in it that we haven't seen before, not a word," Grant says. "I think it's not surprising and indeed it's pretty predictable that they should do this, but I would say one should reserve one's opinion and judge by results."

Leverton concurs. GAPA "seems to be keen to prejudge the outcome of these commitments," he says.

However, in principle, Grant welcomes input from those who do not share the industry's view. While stressing that the 'Statement of Concern' contains "a lot of inaccuracies and some false accusations", he welcomes the fact that it will precipitate debate. 

"From the NGO community, or from that part of the NGO community, there has been that rather adversarial response, which in a way I do welcome in the sense that it helps to bring to the fore some of the issues that are important."

This view is supported by Paul Skehan, director general of Spirits Europe. The role that NGOs in general play is "an important one in terms of putting up a challenge and making sure that there is a political focus on the harms caused by alcohol", Skehan says. "I think, in some cases, they do a fantastic job of that and we have to respond to it."

However, it is not so much industry's reaction to GAPA which is pertinent here, but the WHO's response. While it was published in February, the 'Statement of Concern' was only sent to WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan this month.

Official response

There has so far been no formal response from the World Health Organization to the launch of the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers' Commitments, even though they were sent to Dr Chan when they were first published in October. 

There have been some informal discussions between industry representatives and the WHO Secretariat, which were thought to have left industry advocates encouraged by a generally positive response. The lack of any official response from Dr Chan was also played down by those promoting the new commitments.

However, any early optimism appears to have been dispelled following recent events. Earlier this month in a letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Dr Chan made explicit comments about industry's role that have not made welcome reading for the signatory companies and the industry at large. Arguably, Dr Chan's letter represents an official, and immediate response to the GAPA 'Statement of Concern', a courtesy not extended to the 13 signatories of the new global commitments. Moreover, the support Dr Chan appears to be lending to GAPA's position has raised concerns among industry representatives.

The fallout from those remarks, the relationship between the industry and the WHO and the industry's engagement in the WHO Strategy are discussed in the following section of this briefing.

For part three of this briefing, click here.

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