Stephanie Lvovich, APCO Worldwide: Play time is over for alcohol

The alcohol industry is under threat from World Health Organization recommendations.

Britain likes a drink. Our high streets after 11pm are peopled with young bingers; the middle classes drink far too much wine at home; supermarkets sell beer for less than water and holidaymakers establish our reputation as the hardest drinking tourists on the planet.

So far, the Government has done little to reduce the economic and human cost of drinking. Advertising continues and marketing activities are unfettered, despite the proven damaging effects to health. Extreme price-cutting is still permitted and the Government seems reluctant to apply any extra alcohol taxation or consumer education campaigns to change behaviour. However, perhaps play time is over for the drinks industry.

This year, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, with references made to fiscal policy, retail regulation and a 'precautionary approach to protecting young people against marketing techniques'.

A public discussion on the harmful effects of alcohol is developing globally. Although any policy recommendations endorsed by the WHO are not legally binding, they are often adopted at a national level.

Undoubtedly, the alcohol industry is facing difficult times: the global rise of non-communicable diseases can be linked in some cases to alcohol abuse and the calls for tougher alcohol regulation are growing louder. In addition, cash-strapped governments are on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, with alcohol taxes increasingly considered an attractive option.

Recent history teaches us that when the WHO focuses its attention on an industry sector or product category, far-reaching and accelerated regulation is likely to occur - and on a global scale. Alcohol companies' corporate affairs and comms functions will need to ensure they are operating as integrated, global teams to respond most effectively to WHO-driven regulation across so many geographies, given regulators' tendency to adopt 'best practice' models from other markets in the area of consumer products.

It is likely alcohol-focused stakeholders will seize the opportunity to use the global strategy to question the validity of alcohol as a product and position it as undesirable for society. We can see evidence of this trend; a recent report in a leading British medical journal depicts alcohol as more destructive than all other drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

Alcohol abuse is a serious issue that is related to a number of social ills. However, the problems associated with abuse will not be solved in isolation and require a broad approach, with the alcohol industry playing an active, positive role.

So, how should the alcohol industry respond? It must put even greater emphasis on health issues and ensure that an enlightened awareness of these issues is embedded at the highest level of its businesses. In order to be credible, companies have to reassess their operations, including marketing and product development, where health considerations may not always be a core focus of attention.

Companies that embrace such change send strong signals to governments and the wider society and have the greatest chance of success in protecting their licence to operate and their reputation through regulatory challenges, such as the WHO global strategy implementation process.

Unless the industry can show how it is working to educate consumers to moderate alcohol consumption and to reduce the harm caused by its products, it risks losing control of the agenda, which it has so far managed to set with legislators.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Which consumer trends (social, economic or political) are having the greatest influence on your current campaigns?

Consumers today are expecting more and more from their food: ease, healthiness, affordability and sustainability.

If your agency was an animal, which would it be and why?

A grey squirrel - introduced from the US a few years ago and has been devastating the native competition ever since.

To which three consumer brands are you most personally loyal?

Tom Ford, Chanel and Rolex.

Stephanie Lvovich is global chair, food and consumer products, at APCO Worldwide

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