News Analysis: PR blitz confronts binge drinkers

With Britons preparing to embark on their annual festive booze spree, Sarah Robertson analyses efforts by the Government, charities and the alcohol industry to warn people of the ill-effects of binge drinking. Britain's binge-drinking culture has become a national media obsession and a spate of PR activity to tackle the problem is planned in the run-up to Christmas.

The Portman Group, The Stroke Association and exclusive rehabilitation centre The Priory are just some of the organisations set to unleash public-education campaigns as the nation gears up for its annual season of booze-fuelled parties.

The Stroke Association launched its first-ever anti-binge-drinking campaign this week. The push centres around research it actually carried out in 1999. Media officer Emma Guise says: 'Binge drinking is a very hot topic so it makes sense to release the survey now, especially because people tend to drink three times the recommended amount around Christmas.'

The charity is using the survey to show that many people do not know they are binge drinkers and that excessive alcohol intake more than doubles the risk of stroke because it raises blood pressure. The survey asked 2,000 people across the UK about their drinking habits and perceptions of the effects drinking has on health.

Health awareness

As well as the survey, the association is promoting case studies of people who have suffered strokes after binge-drinking sessions. 'One 32-year-old woman had a stroke the day after an evening binge drinking. Although she has nearly made a full recovery, a third of people who have strokes die and another third are left with a permanent disability,' says Guise.

While the association's festive campaign has a broad focus, plans are afoot to launch another, aimed specifically at women, next spring.

With research showing that women tend to drink more than men in social situations, The Stroke Association wants to time its next push as women prepare for their summer holiday and try to lose weight. The association's ultimate aim is to curb binge drinking by raising awareness.

Mental-healthcare centre The Priory has a slightly different agenda.

It has released a survey that it says demonstrates the link between drinking and mental health problems, as it tries to position itself as a market leader in treatment programmes.

The Priory aims to alert people to the fact that there are a host of mental-health issues associated with alcohol abuse. Group corporate comms manager Karen Croft says: 'Our research shows that 60 per cent of people think it is acceptable to binge drink at Christmas. We are highlighting the fact that people are self-medicating - they are drinking because of fear, loneliness, and low self-esteem. '

The Priory has set up a helpline people can call to arrange a free session with an addiction therapist. It then refers people either to a GP or body such as Alcoholics Anonymous. It will also hold open days at its 15 centres around the country.

Meanwhile, The Portman Group, the drinks industry-funded body set up to promote responsible drinking, is this year running its first Christmas cinema advertising campaign, which targets women.

According to the organisation, the proportion of 16 to 24-year-old women consuming more than 35 units a week more than tripled between 1988 and 2002 from three to ten per cent (the recommended weekly limit for women is 14 units). It is with this in mind that Guinness-to-Smirnoff drinks giant Diageo is running a media campaign called Good Intentions, which intends to encourage women to think about alcohol consumption by raising awareness of how many units are in each drink and what the daily guidelines are, as well as offering tips on responsible drinking. Its effort takes the form of a series of features in More magazine and the Daily Mirror.

The Portman Group recently launched www.drinkaware.co.uk, a site that enables drinkers to calculate how many units they are consuming. 'We need to know how much people are drinking, why they are drinking and if they need to make changes. Then we need to encourage them to make the next step,' says a spokesman.

The Department of Health named The Portman Group in last month's Public Health White Paper as a 'partner' to 'develop a new and strengthened (anti-binge-drinking) campaign', a move that has angered charity Alcohol Concern.

Joshua Bayly, campaigns and parliamentary officer at the charity, says: 'It is like asking Philip Morris to tell people to stop smoking. It is not in (The Portman Group's) interests for people to drink less.'

But Portman Group director of communications Jim Minton insists the group is well positioned as a credible campaigner. 'The drinks industry wants healthy drinkers, it doesn't want people getting damaged by alcohol abuse,' he argues.

Mass effort

Efforts by charities and the industry to tackle the problem coincide with the Department for Transport's annual anti-drink-driving push. It launches a fresh version of its THINK! 'Don't drink and drive' campaign on 7 December on cinema, radio and TV. It has also joined forces with Dairy Farmers of Britain, which is putting the DfT's messages on nine million cartons of Dairygate Milk to deter people from getting into their cars the morning after a night out, when they could still be over the legal limit.

In addition, Threshers has adopted the THINK! branding on its cash tills, while JD Wetherspoon and Britvic have created non-alcoholic Christmas cocktails to encourage drivers not to drink.

And the Home Office is to repeat its Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaign, which debuted this summer. It consists of a media relations effort to support new police powers brought in to enable officers to administer on-the-spot fines for anti-social drink-fuelled behaviour.

The public are about to be bombarded with messages encouraging them to resist the urge to drink excessively this Christmas. Time will tell whether the campaigning frenzy will trigger the desired effect.

XMAS ANTI-BOOZING CAMPAIGNS

- The Portman Group

Don't do drunk, the girls' night out

Target: 18 to 30-year-old women

- Diageo

Good Intentions

Target: 18 to 24-year-old women

- The Stroke Association

Binge drinking causes stroke

Target: general

- Department for Transport THINK!

Target: 17 to 29-year-old men

- Home Office

Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaign

Target: general

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