Davenport direct

12 December, 2008

The fat lady may have sung for tobacco, but there's still room on stage for the alcohol industry

Silk Cut's purple soprano must take the gong for the most graceful exit when she ushered in the end of tobacco advertising. The brand's It Ain't Over Til the Fat Lady Sings campaign displayed a humour which belied the mood of an industry besieged, while simultaneously reinforcing the message that the health lobby could strip away its commercial freedoms, but the show would go on - people would still smoke.

And on it has gone, until this week's inevitable shot to drive cigarettes under the counter - a move that will certainly cause some retailers to wave the white flag. Parallels with alcohol abound, although we are not at the flag-waving stage just yet. On the face of it, last week's proposals for a mandatory code suggest we could even be allowed to feel that rare sensation - a flush of optimism. Government has moved away from some of the feared draconian measures and much of it is now common sense. What responsible retailer wouldn't want to see the back of promotions allowing women to drink their weight in Chardonnay for a tenner? In the off-trade, ministers want to stop promotional mechanics that reward customers for buying in bulk, though reaching a definition could be problematic.

The government's decision not to include soundings from its own price, promotions and harm study by Sheffield University signals that price intervention is off the agenda - for now at least. While there may be holes in Sheffield's methodology, there should be no illusions about the potency of its research. This document will also shape the mandatory code and is now on the bookshelf for the health lobby to use as a stick to beat government.

Does this all sound like drink really is the new tobacco? Unlike cigarettes, every glass does not kill, but it's easy to get browbeaten into believing alcohol is intrinsically bad. Several areas of the government's proposals do set alarm bells ringing, including a ban on advertising and sponsorship aligning alcohol with cultural events. If government does not want consumption to be all about how much bang your buck buys, it must let suppliers tell the stories of their products, to engage with consumers on another level. Securing the right to do so is one of the biggest challenges of next year. The positive note we can carry into 2009 is that consumers are receptive to learning more about the drinks they are buying. For this reason alone, we are a long way from the final curtain.

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