Close-Up: Live Issue - Will booze rules beat binge-drinking?

Ofcom may have listened to ISBA but drinks advertisers must clean up their act, John Tylee says.

Like a death row prisoner spared the electric chair, Britain's alcohol manufacturers and their agencies are mightily relieved.

Under political pressure to take an uncompromising line on the excesses of the drinks industry, Ofcom appeared ready to throw the switch on it. So much so, that beer and spirits producers feared they might be finished as TV advertisers, with eight out of ten of their ads unable to be screened under Draconian new legislation.

Now, after some plea-bargaining in which the industry has agreed, in the words of one agency creative, to "stop behaving like silly little boys trying to get away with something behind teacher's back", a stay of execution has been agreed.

That's not to say it has got off scot-free. In effect, the death sentence has been commuted to hard labour. Ofcom has drawn back from heavy-handed legislation but the pressure on drinks advertisers to clean up their act is still intense. What's more, the threat of further tightening of the rules after they have been subjected to public consultation remains. For the moment, the drinks industry and its apologists must content themselves with the knowledge that the Ofcom rules, while tough, are fair and workable.

Certainly the scenario could have been a lot worse. And many believe the alcohol industry would have only had itself to blame.

Gerry Moira, the former Publicis executive creative director, cites the rise of "laddism" and the changing club scene during the 90s as the source of the current problem. Young ravers no longer felt the need to get tanked-up on alcohol when a glass of water and an Ecstasy tablet had the same effect, he says. Hence the alcopop phenomenon as manufacturers tried to woo back young drinkers, and advertising which flouted the rules with its teen appeal.

Determined to put a stop to such flagrant flouting of the rules, Ofcom presented a set of proposals in July which set alarm bells ringing across the drinks industry.

At ISBA, executives saw the devil in the detailed appendices to the suggested codes which, if implemented, they believed would have made alcohol advertising unworkable. Equally disturbing to ISBA was how such rules would be interpreted by the BACC. The watchdog had already taken flak for letting through ads such as McCann Erickson's film for Bacardi featuring Vinnie Jones and Leith London's Carling ad showing a man cleaning a flat with his tongue.

Word was that the BACC wasn't prepared to be a scapegoat any longer and would clamp down on drinks ads which even remotely threatened to contravene the rules.

While acknowledging that the regulations needed tightening, ISBA told Ofcom its plans were disproportionate and persuaded it to modify its tough stance.

Now it remains to be seen with what degree of strictness the BACC and the Advertising Standards Authority interpret the codes. Philip Circus, a marketing law consultant and a member of the rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice, believes pressure on both bodies will be heavy.

"As an issue, alcohol is much more important than obesity in most people's minds because it's linked with anti-social behaviour. The worry is that the Government will want to be seen to be doing something and that alcohol advertising will be seen as a soft target."

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LAWYER - Brinsley Dresden, head of advertising law, Lewis Silkin

"Although the new rules are a blessed relief compared with the ones put out to consultation, by disposing of all the helpful guidance notes that accompanied the old rules, Ofcom has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

"How long will it be before the new ASA publishes its own rules to remove the discrepancies with the existing non-broadcast rules?

"The biggest hangover will come from the restrictive grounds for appeal under the new ASA. Many expensive TV campaigns will not wait long on death row. With advertisers now paying for the privilege of being their own executioner, some may be rueing the demise of the old Independent Television Commission."

ACADEMIC/YOUTH WORKER - Dr Howard Williamson CBE, researcher on young people and social policy in the school of social services at Cardiff University

"Youth culture encourages higher levels of alcohol consumption than 20 years ago and the drinks industry is wise to it. The Portman Group says ads target over-18s but I'm sceptical about that when so many youth-club debates are about the latest trendy drink.

"Restrictions on ads are right but evidence suggests alcohol consumption is fuelled by price and availability.

A big worry is the way alcohol is separating young people from the rest of society via youth pubs. When different generations no longer drink together, it's hard for younger people to learn to consume alcohol sensibly."

DOCTOR - Dr Keith Barnard, medical editor of GP magazine and a GP in Hampshire

"I don't believe in a total ban on alcohol advertising but drinks manufacturers do have a case to answer. There are parallels with cigarette advertisers, not in the way their brands were promoted, but in the way their ads led to smoking becoming acceptable.

"During my time as a GP, I've seen the damage smoking causes and it makes me feel bitter about the people who have made their fortunes out of selling cigarettes.

"Alcohol is different. Of course, I've seen cases of alcoholism but they aren't as prevalent. But I'm surprised that children will be allowed to appear in alcohol ads.

I don't think they should be encouraged to believe drinking is part of normal family life."

POLICE OFFICER - Chris Allison, Metropolitan Police and lead on licensing and alcohol matters for the Association of Chief Police Officers

"Hopefully, the changes will stop encouraging people to drink to excess. But a change in drinking culture can't just be delivered by advertising, it has to be brought about in a variety of ways.

"Twenty years ago, we had fewer pubs with limited opening hours, offering a limited range of products to different age groups. Now there's hundreds of premises fighting for market share, with drinks aimed at young people. They think it's hip to get drunk. When they do, they get more confrontational, more aggressive and are more likely to become victims of crime."