Drinking-up time, folks

Vodka-makers are screening TV commercials telling us to drink less. But, wonders Maxine Frith, is there an ulterior motive at work?

It sounds like a drunken joke - the alcohol industry is urging people to sober up. Smirnoff, the world's biggest vodka manufacturer, has launched a television commercial warning people against using too much of its product. The 30-second TV commercial features a couple celebrating their engagement in a restaurant when an old college friend of the man joins them. The two blokes begin recalling their college days - and the drinking and womanising that went on. As the men's tales grow increasingly graphic, the woman becomes ever more shocked. Cue the strapline: "Now would be a good time to stop", followed by the message: "Knowing when to stop is a good thing," alongside the Smirnoff logo.

The £500,000 campaign forms the core of parent company Diageo's (which also owns Guinness, Baileys, Captain Morgan and J&B) new social responsibility policy, aimed at promoting sensible drinking. It aims to reach half of all 18- to 34-year-olds. So is the booze industry finally admitting that happiness can't be found at the bottom of a double vodka and tonic?

In the sober light of day, other factors may be at play. Diageo's campaign comes just a few weeks before the Government publishes its strategy on alcohol. Among the proposals being considered are much tighter rules on alcohol advertising. The drinks industry has been subjected to mounting criticism over the way products such as alcopops have been aggressively marketed at the young.

Ireland - the only country in Europe to have higher rates of teenage drinking than the UK - has recently banned drinks commercials on TV before 10pm, and there are suggestions that Britain may go the same way.

Diageo's move has been interpreted by some as an attempt to pre-empt a government clampdown. "We welcome anything that encourages responsible drinking, but I think we are slightly cynical about the motives for Diageo doing this," says Geethika Jaytilaka, director of policy at the charity Alcohol Concern. "It's all very well having a few TV commercials with a bland health warning, but the real problem is with the products being launched on the UK market, and the way they are promoted."

She is more concerned that advertisers pay attention to section 11.8.1 of the Independent Television Commission's Advertising Standards Code, which rules that adverts "must not suggest that alcohol can contribute to sexual success or that drinking can enhance sexual attractiveness".

"Adverts for alcopops have repeatedly pushed the boundaries on the way sex is used to sell brands, and we would like to see companies put that part of their house in order, rather than launch separate health campaigns." She adds: "The latest trends in the market are shots contained in test tubes. These encourage quick and excessive drinking - the test tubes mean you can't physically put the drink down, so you have to down it in one. If companies are really committed to social responsibility, they should focus on their product development and marketing."

Some campaigners have also called for a levy, where alcohol advertising is subjected to a tax, which is then used to fund public health campaigns on drinking. The alcohol industry spends £227m a year on advertising its products, while the NHS spends £3bn a year on treating alcohol addiction.

But Diageo says it is committed to the promotion of responsible drinking and says charities should work with rather than against the drinks industry. "We believe that the launch of the new responsible drinking campaign marks a major step forward for the industry, and that we have a role to play in educating consumers about how to drink responsibly," says Tony Mair, director of corporate affairs.

Other Diageo initiatives include labelling all the company's UK products with the number of alcohol units they contain, and a ban on "irresponsible" in-store promotions that encourage customers to drink more to save money.

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