Siobhan O'Neill reports
Christmas is looming and as minds turn to party season and alcohol sales boom, around the country many pubs, hotels, brewers and retailers will be encouraging their customers to drink more responsibly.
Perhaps because of the frequent media images of weekend drinkers falling out of bars, getting into fights and ending up in A&E or sleeping it off at the police station, there are more Responsibility Deal pledges dedicated to alcohol than any of the other sectors. A total of eight pledges ask producers, licensees and retailers to improve alcohol labelling, promote awareness of alcohol units, reduce consumption, tackle sale of alcohol to under-age consumers and to back campaigns such as Drinkaware.
The pledges are widely supported by much of the industry, with 82 companies - responsible for 80% of sales - committed to clear alcohol unit labelling on products by the end of 2013, according to the Department of Health. In March this year the Responsibility Deal added a unit reduction pledge, which aims to remove one billion units of alcohol from the marketplace by offering smaller measures and lower-strength products.
At face value one might think this is pressuring companies to go against the very nature of their business, but many disagree.
"We believe it offers benefits to all involved," says Neil Williams, communications manager at the British Beer & Pub Association. "We've been keenly promoting the concept and the pledges. There are genuine win-win situations for the Government, alcohol producers, retailers and consumers. The pledge allows brewers to develop lower-strength beers and has been assisted elsewhere in government through a lower tax rate for these beers."
The BBPA has signed up for all eight pledges and is supporting its members to meet some of their targets. They produce free posters online that members and non-members alike can download and print out to raise alcohol unit awareness, and there are also beer mats and tent cards available. Williams is convinced that collaborative working on the pledges is better for all involved.
"Central to the Responsibility Deal is that working together we can achieve more than through legislative changes, which often come with unintended costs and consequences,"
he says. "We believe the initiative is working. Behind the scenes companies are continuing work to progress the pledges. Some changes will take time to come into effect, but we believe beneficial changes are already being seen."
Kate Hempsall, head of PR at pub company Charles Wells, agrees. "It's a work in progress. You're not going to change everything overnight," she says.
Charles Wells has signed up to six of the pledges and is adapting both the brewing and the pub side of the business. "We operate the brewing side under the Wells and Youngs arm, where changes to labelling are part of the rolling programme," Hempsall says. "We're up to speed on the unit information and the pregnancy warning, but we're still working towards putting the NHS drinking guidelines on all our brands."
Responsible drinking is key to the company's ethos and it is committed to several schemes, including Drinkaware, the BBPA's Challenge 21, and Best Bar None - all of which keep responsibility uppermost in licensees minds. But tenants and licensees are spread across the country and each will have their own approach to running their individual pubs.
"We can't go out with an edict and say you must follow these rules," admits Hempsall. "But we have a mandatory induction for anybody taking one of our pubs and straight away we talk about responsible alcohol retailing, explaining why we're so passionate about it and making them understand how it impacts their business, as well as reiterating their obligation under the licensing act."
The company also feels it's important to lead by example so they are hoping to sponsor their local All Bar None scheme and highlight steps like this within the tenants' newsletter.
While Hempsall says responsible drinking reflects the company's general approach, she feels that signing up to the pledges has helped it formalise its commitment and to ensure it is keeping pace with others' progress and proceeding at a sensible pace.
"Don't be over ambitious and try to bite off too much in one go. Keep it simple with realistic timescales," she says. "Involve and engage all the relevant people so it's not just one person trying to enforce it, and make sure that the commitment is clear to everybody and they understand why. See it as central to your working life as opposed to a project that detracts from other aspects."
Message in a glass
As well as its labelling and licensee training initiatives, Charles Wells is also working towards adding unit information to its branded glassware - though it's not an issue-free process.
"In common with a lot of companies, we order glassware months and years in advance and carry significant stock, so it's not something we can change overnight," says Kate Hempsall. There is also the issue of different strength beers. "There are different units in a pint of 3.6 abv beer as opposed to a 5.4 abv beer," she adds. "So we are reliant on licensees serving Eagle, our 3.6 abv IPA, in an Eagle glass. If you serve it in a Directors glass it's going to give you false information. There's a significant cost implication which is why we didn't just throw away all the glassware and get new. Licensees are going to need sufficient stock of each brand to make sure they can keep that information true for their customers."
The eight alcohol pledges target different sections of the market and therefore have greater or lesser significance depending on whether you are a producer, distributor, retailer, off-license, publican or hotelier.
- Alcohol labelling
- Awareness of alcohol units in the on-trade
- Awareness of alcohol units, [calories and other information] in the off-trade
- Tackling under-age alcohol sales
- Support for drinkaware
- Advertising and marketing alcohol
- Community actions to tackle alcohol harms
- Alcohol unit reduction
Brewers back alcohol awareness groups
Molson Coors is instrumental within the industry in pushing the responsible drinking and alcohol awareness messages home. Director of corporate affairs Scott Wilson co-chairs the Low Alcohol & Smaller Servings Workgroup with Alan Hopley of Addaction. The group brings together producers from all major sectors, retailers and the public health community to focus on opportunities and obstacles to developing the market for low- and reduced-alcohol products in the UK. Collectively they developed the pledge to reduce alcohol by one billion units by 2015.
As well as meeting its commitments on the labelling and marketing pledges, Molson Coors co-signed the local community pledge (along with Heineken, Bacardi and Diageo). The pledge commits significant investment to community schemes such as Best Bar None and Community Alcohol Partnerships.
"Ongoing support for local schemes is an important component of the Responsibility Deal since we know levels of harm are not consistent across the UK," says Wilson. "There is a strong wave of commitment across the industry - both among producers and retailers - and it is encouraging to see the momentum. These are weighty pledges which will grow as more organisations get involved and show their leadership through tangible action."