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Campaign for Smarter Drinking

The drinks industry has announced a £100M campaign to promote responsible drinking, due to be launched in September.

The campaign, to run over five years, targets binge drinkers and includes advice such as eating before drinking and alternating alcoholic drinks with soft drinks. The tagline is ‘Why let a good night go bad?’

The campaign was prompted by Gordon Brown, at a summit in Downing Street in November 2007, at which he challenged the industry to do something about alcohol problems. The working title of the campaign was ‘Project 10’.

The natural home for such a project is Drinkaware, an industry-funded charity engaged in social marketing. However, Drinkaware was in its infancy in 2007, so took no part in the development of Project 10. Now, as the project comes to fruition, it will be taken under the wing of the charity, with materials carrying Drinkaware branding and being hosted on their website. Drinkaware trustees will have the right to veto any part of the campaign, though it is thought unlikely that they will do so. Although Drinkaware describes itself as ‘independent’, they are clearly happy to work closely with the alcohol industry.

The campaign was announced as costing £100M over five years. For comparison, the government’s Know Your Limits campaign is reported to be costing £10M for one year and the alcohol industry initially pledged £12M to Drinkaware over three years, though this did not materialise and their core funding for that period is £5M.

We understand that the £20M per year is made up of £15M in kind contributions, such as shelf space for point of sale materials, and £5M-worth of media buy. However, the media buy is valued at the nominal cost of advertising, whilst customers with strong bargaining power, such as the drinks industry, are generally able to negotiate advertising at a fraction of the nominal cost. Therefore the true financial cost of this campaign will be very substantially lower than the figure that was announced.

Although the campaign is not due to be launched until September, it was announced in July, at which time a Health Select Committee investigation into alcohol is in progress and a mandatory code for retail promotions of alcohol is under consultation. Although the government is committed to introducing the mandatory code, it is rumoured that the Home Office is considering delaying its introduction, in response to the announcement of the campaign. Both the Department of Health and the Home Office are publicly supporting this industry led campaign.

Whilst we remain sceptical of the drinks industry engaging in social marketing, we are most concerned by the possibility that this might influence government decisions about regulating that industry. A considerable body of research shows that public education campaigns in isolation have very little impact on alcohol consumption and harm, though they may be valuable in conjunction with other policies such as restrictions on availability and increases in price.

Whilst the mandatory code is relatively limited in scope, it is an important step that must not be derailed by industry campaigning.