It may be the season to eat, drink and be merry, but there was bad news for alcohol brands in the chief medical officer's annual report last week.
The survey found a worrying rise in the number of young people, and particularly young women, suffering from alcohol-related liver problems. The Department of Health said binge drinking was to blame.
The report seems sure to prompt a new round of cries for tighter restrictions on alcohol sales, packaging and ads, and chief medical officer professor Liam Donaldson initially appeared to have confirmed advertisers' worst fears.
In response to what a DoH spokesman says was a leading question from a reporter, Donaldson agreed that the government should consider placing health warnings on alcohol labelling. The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) responded promptly, calling the suggestion that ads or packaging should carry warnings "pointless" and "unlikely to work".
ISBA director of public affairs Ian Twinn slammed the government for inaction on the problems of over-consumption and young people drinking. "The government gets more money than most from excise duties," he said. "Why doesn't it spend some of it on positive advertising to promote the message of responsible drinking?"
This is a common refrain among spirits marketers when ministers talk of tightening the regulations. The Portman Group, the drinks industry consortium founded in 1989, already aims to promote responsible drinking and keep kids away from alcohol. Drinks marketers note bitterly that while the government runs advertising to tackle drink-driving, it does nothing to discourage binge drinking. And although the industry itself claims it is addressing the problem, that does not stop government ministers from calling for more restrictions.
"Advertising is often the softer target for people who oppose a particular industry," says Portman Group policy head David Foley. "It's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Alcohol is a product that can be misused and this can result in harm to the community, so it's not surprising that from time to time the people who have to deal with these problems criticise the industry."
Drinks advertisers are subject to four different sets of advertising regulations, some voluntary. In TV ads, spirits producers must follow a set of rules administered by the Independent Television Commission or see their ads pulled. Similarly, the Radio Authority polices radio ads. Non-broadcast advertising is subject to a voluntary code of conduct drawn up by the Advertising Standards Authority, and naming and packaging fall under voluntary rules imposed by the industry's Portman Group.
Foley says: "They are all trying to achieve the same thing. You're not allowed to show anyone under the age of 25 or anyone who looks like they may be under the age of 25. You're not allowed to do anything that condones or encourages drunkenness. The important thing is not to appeal to under-18s or encourage alcohol misuse."
While TV and radio regulators have the power to jettison ads and levy fines, the industry remains largely self-policing. Drinks producers would like to keep it that way, but a number of challenges loom in the not-too-distant future. The government's first national alcohol strategy report is due to be released in 18 months, and some European Union member states advocate more stringent regulation.
Drinks producers are nervous that alcohol marketing could be moving into the same murky waters as tobacco.
A year ago, the European Commission called for tighter controls on alcohol advertising, to combat underage drinking. Nothing came of it, but it was enough to put producers on notice. More recently, France has been taken to the European Court of Justice over its Loi Evin, a measure banning all TV alcohol advertising. Two cases involving France's refusal to broadcast foreign football games with alcohol brand banner ads lining the stadium are pending. …