Editorial: Europe must adopt UK-style regulation

The British Medical Association's call on the Government to ban TV ads for unhealthy foods from appearing before the 9pm watershed adds yet another dimension to next week's European summit on self-regulation. Such a move makes it even more important that the advertisers, agency and media representatives summoned to Brussels by the European Association of Communication Agencies don't just settle for pious words. A simple rededication to effective self-regulation across an enlarged Europe will not amount to much unless this is translated into action. And quickly.

Little matter that the 50,000 complaints dealt with each year by self-regulatory bodies around Europe concern less than 0.1 per cent of the total number of ads that run. Those that blatantly flout the rules attract highly disproportionate publicity that inevitably weakens the industry's claim that it can police itself effectively.

It isn't just major advertisers who have adjusted to operating within a single European market. Pressure groups have also become more sophisticated, with more cross-border co-operation and greater success in seeking out and exploiting the vulnerabilities of the commercial organisations they take on. At the same time, the huge increase in electronic commerce gives European consumers access to websites anywhere in the world.

The result: an inevitable upswing in complaints, many that self-regulation will find impossible to resolve.

The industry is shooting itself in the foot too often. Some alcohol advertisers seem intent on ignoring the rules until governments force them into line; food and soft-drink manufacturers are taking an alarmingly long time to mount a common defence in the face of mounting criticism that they fail to take obesity seriously.

Small wonder that European Union legislators are running out of patience and, in doing so, lend sympathetic ears to single-interest groups that see advertising as manifestly evil and want it brought to heel. So what can be done to create credible self-regulatory systems around Europe everybody can have confidence in?

The EU could start by reaffirming its commitment to the "country of origin" principle, under which advertising needs only to comply with the laws of the country in which it was created. It is crass for Brussels to demand that self-regulation improve while being prepared to sacrifice country of origin in order to get agreement on its proposed directive on unfair commercial practices.

A priority for the industry must be to extend the British system, which is funded by a levy, across the whole of Europe. Ending what, in many cases, is an haphazard method of financial underpinning will be vital if self-regulation is to thrive.