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Not in front of the children

Shaken by gloomy predictions about the likely aftermath of extended licensing hours, the government is looking to compensate by targeting TV advertising, says Jon Rees

THIS WAS the government that texted voters before the last election with the slogan, "cdnt gve a XXXX 4 lst ordrs? Vote labour on thrsdy 4 xtra time"; which might lead one to assume that Labour had a pretty liberal attitude to drinking.

And Labour has been as good as its truncated words; it really doesn’t give a XXXX and is planning to allow pubs to open for 24 hours, seven days a week next year.  Except it is beginning to look like the government is getting a little nervous about its plans.

First, it was rattled following accusations earlier this year that it had withheld information from a report on extended opening hours showing that in countries like the US, Australia and Finland violence and crime increased when bars stayed open longer.

Then the police, fed up with clearing up the war zones that are our city centres every night, made their views known more vocally than before.  Stephen Green, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, told the BBC’s Panorama programme, which was investigating the explosion in Britain’s drinking culture in recent years, that extended opening hours were "my idea of hell".

He later vowed to do all he could to reclaim the streets for all citizens and to defeat the aggressive drunks who, too often, rule unchallenged.  There is no public clamour for longer drinking hours.

Certainly most women are against it, and now home secretary David Blunkett is apparently getting a little anxious about going ahead.  In the meantime, however, there is one thing that the government can do to show it is responding to increasingly vocal criticism of its alcohol policy.

It can do what pretty much every major government in Europe, the US and even, who would have thought it, Russia has done: it can clamp down on the advertising of alcohol on television and it aims to do so from November.

The aim is to respond to concerns about underage drinking and so-called binge drinking, which essentially means anybody who drinks more than five units of alcohol at a time. 

The government’s report into alcohol consumption published in March criticised Ofcom, the media regulator, for being too soft on drinks advertising, noting that there is "widespread concern that some alcohol advertisements breach the spirit, if not the letter, of the television advertising code".

The report also noted that the drinks companies were skilled at using commercials to send "covert" messages to underage drinkers which glamorise drinking. 

Ofcom admits that alcohol advertising has some impact on young people’s attitudes to drinking, but it says that this is at a relatively low level compared with other influences "within the wider family and social environment".

It also notes that a study has shown that a good deal of television advertising – of alcopops in particular – is "closely aligned to youth culture and of strong interest to underage drinkers".

Ofcom says research shows that advertising which does not seek to make a link with youth culture and which features older people is much less attractive to children and younger teenagers.

The aims of the changes are to discourage advertising which is likely to be strongly attractive to this impressionable audience; advertising which appears to condone anti-social behaviour related to drinking, particularly with implications of excess consumption; and advertising which implies a link between drinking alcohol and sexual success, bravado or attractiveness.

Any ads which appear to condone the irresponsible handling or serving of alcohol are similarly frowned upon, too, so no commercial which shows drinks being ordered repeatedly can be shown.

This is not the first time alcohol advertising in the UK has been restricted, of course.  In fact, there have been restrictions in place since the beginning of commercial television five decades ago.

Now, though, they have been tightened a little.  For instance, under the old rules advertisements could not imply that alcohol is "essential" to social success; but in future they cannot even imply that drinking can improve the atmosphere of a social occasion.

 Previously, too, alcohol advertisements could not imply that alcohol "contributes" to sexual success; now the new rules specify that alcohol cannot even be associated with sexual activity, unless it is between mature couples.

Indeed, alcohol cannot be presented as anything other than a "mature, adult pleasure".  The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers has accused Ofcom of being "over-prescriptive and heavyhanded" with its proposals.

They are not all restrictive, however, and there are some concessions to advertisers.  It will be perfectly permissible, for instance, to show children in commercials as long as they are part of a family group which is eating or socialising "calmly and responsibly".

Ofcom also intends to drop the rule which prevents advertisements from "showing people drinking in the workplace".  Ofcom did consider banning alcohol commercials before 9pm, but decided this would be a disproportionate response.

Had it done so, the result would have been to drive up the cost of advertising after this time which would, in effect, be a tax on drinks companies.  It remains to be seen whether the new rules will affect the amount of money drinks companies spend on television advertising.  There is certainly the possibility that they might switch a proportion of the £130m they spend on television into other media. 

Some current commercials would almost certainly break the new rules: the commercials for John Smith’s bitter, starring comedian Peter Kay, would be a possible casualty since their humour could be regarded as appealing to young people; so, too, would the commercials for Bacardi, starring Vinnie Jones, in which his sex appeal is not only boosted, since he clearly has a thing going with the glamorous waitress, but it also shows rum being liberally and indiscriminately poured down eager throats.

Compared with other countries, some of which ban television advertising for drinks entirely, drinks companies in the UK have got off pretty lightly so far.  If the government’s plans for extended opening hours prove as disastrous as critics claim, however, this is unlikely to be the last time that drinks companies face restrictions on their business.

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