Page last updated: Wednesday, January 07, 2009
The Problem: Drinking to get drunk
Our headlines have been dominated this year, or infact for several years by our binge culture, whereby 18 - 25 year olds in particular may drink very little, or nothing during the week and then go out specifically to ‘get plastered’ on a Friday and Saturday night. This culture crosses all classes, income groups, the sexes and most ethnic groups. It is a culture that is particularly strong in Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland and to a lesser degree in the US. However even Mediterranean countries where traditional patterns of drinking have been much healthier have become implicated with the emergence of the ‘botellon’ in Spain. A botellon is a boozy party held in a public place, where often underage participants drink in an unregulated environment.

Hence bingeing and under -age drinking have become strongly linked in the public and official eye, as has the association of alcohol and violence and anti-social behaviour - all of which give drinking alcohol a reputation the industry must disassociate itself from. The industry was given an ultimatum by Commissioner David Byrne at the WHO conference on alcohol and young people in Stockholm in January 2001 to show by the end of this year that it could put strong measures in place to prove that its advertising does not appeal to those under age and that its branding does not promote a culture of excess or of sexual prowess, or legislation will follow. The WHO conference in May 2002 on self regulation of alcohol advertising again called on governments to regulate advertising and was heavily critical of the industry. Most recently the British Medical Association has called for a ban on alcohol adverts due to ‘the worrying increase in binge drinking among the young’.

Action from individual countries, such as the Ukraine and most notably the traditionally liberal Ireland to stem the increase in binge-drinking by introducing a raft of measures including the regulation of advertising has sent shockwaves around the world and provided a much needed wake up call to some companies whose advertising campaigns have been sailing close to wind over the last year. A survey of global public opinion of different industries commissioned by Heineken reflects public suspicion of beverage alcohol company ethics/motivation rating it at -18%, below the chemical, oil and pharmaceutical companies. Only tobacco rated lower.

The industry and its associations have worked hard over the last few years to emphasise the importance of patterns of drinking and the context of drinking. This separates the idea of drinking, and specifically drinking in moderation - at meal times, in a civilised context from the damaging patterns of excess over the weekend. Research shows clearly that binge drinking is extremely damaging, a survey carried out by Finland’s national Public Health Institute tracked 5000 men over 10 years and found that drinking 6 or more beers in one session increased your risk of dying young by more than half. After 10 years the death rate of binge-drinkers was 75% higher, the main killer being heart disease followed by liver disease. How to change this ingrained behaviour, where getting drunk is rated higher than socialising or enjoyment will not be easy. However, the UK and US has succeeded in turning drink-driving into a social taboo over the last twenty years, so there is no reason why - with imagination, determination and of course funds, a current social norm can be deemed ‘uncool’ in time.

Allied Domecq has paved the way for promoting moderation as a key part of its marketing and advertising with the launch of Tia Lusso last year, whose sensible drinking strap line is ‘ you just know to drink in moderation’, similarly Ballantynes whisky message is ‘play better, play in moderation’. The tremendous success of Tia Lusso, leaping to number two in the cream liqueur market in 12 months, showed that a responsible approach to marketing and product launch has no ill effect on sales was an important lesson.They have since extended messages to Malibu and Makers Mark.

The news that Diageo have now launched a sensible drinking campaign in the UK ( it has already run in the US) through such a main stream brand as Smirnoff is excellent news. The witty campaign which features a couple having dinner to celebrate their engagement when a ‘friend’ turns up and regales Cindy with tales of Hank’s wild bachelor past. The strapline is ‘knowing when to stop is a good thing’. £2 million funds have been earmarked for the UK.

The fact that two of the most important global beverage alcohol companies are putting social responsibility at the heart of their policy is a good start and combined with initiatives for better design in pubs, unbreakable glasses, better public transport at night, better trained bar staff together with imaginative and interactive education and publicity perhaps the damaging (both to the industry and the participants) pattern of binge-drinking can be turned around.
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All text and images © 2003 Alcohol In Moderation.