The EU is looking to reduce alcohol-related harm in the Union. Its newly-formed “European Alcohol & Health Forum” has industry and marketing stakeholder members and it will be expected to develop self or co regulatory processes “to promote responsible commercial communications” for booze or face legislation. Nick Johnson raises a looking glass.
Who: European Commission
When: May 2007
Law stated as at: 30 May 2007
The EC's Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection, Robert Madelin, has met with representatives of the alcohol industry and the marketing sector with a view to establishing a "European Alcohol and Health Forum".
The Forum was envisaged in an EU strategy document adopted by the Commission in 2006 as a key way to help achieve the objective of reducing alcohol-related harm in Europe. Although chaired by Madelin, the Forum's members will not be EU or member state officials. Rather they will be "interested stakeholders" who are willing to commit to new self-regulatory regimes with an increased level of commitment to reducing alcohol-related harm in various areas. Those areas include strategies aimed at curbing under-age drinking, actions for better enforcement of age limits for selling and serving alcohol and "cooperation to promote responsibility in and prevent irresponsible commercial communication".
Forum members will be required to give firm commitments in the form of an action plan, including measurable objectives and a timetable for implementation. They will also be required to agree to certain levels of monitoring and evaluation of their performance against their commitments.
A formal announcement about the launch of the Forum and its inaugural members is expected in early June 2007.
Why this matters
Self-regulation always used to be an industry-driven initiative, seen as a way to head off threats of draconian government legislation by demonstrating that industry could put its own house in order and deal effectively with problems. The ASA's regulatory regime for non-broadcast advertising is a good example.
But as time has gone on new regulatory models have evolved. In 2004, UK statutory body Ofcom contracted out its broadcast advertising regulatory functions to the ASA, creating a "one-stop shop" for advertising regulation. This was described as a "co-regulatory" system.
The same description could equally be used in relation to the EC's new European Alcohol and Health Forum, although here the model is slightly different again. The EC is not contracting out existing regulatory duties to members of the Forum. Rather it is actively encouraging Forum members to adopt new self-regulatory regimes. However just as Ofcom retains the right to take broadcast advertising regulation back from the ASA, so the EC retains the ultimate fall-back option of proceeding with EU-wide legislation if the Forum fails to make satisfactory progress in achieving its objectives.
And in the meantime, the Commission hopes to be firmly in the driving seat in shaping the nature and extent of the game-keeping commitments that the poachers of industry will take on. Moreover, Forum members who fail to meet their objectives, or who otherwise fall short of the requirements set out in the Forum's Charter, will face the sanction of potential ejection from the group.
Clearly the EC has twigged that self-regulation can be an effective tool, and very much cheaper than legislation and legal enforcement. But it remains to be seen what levels of commitment Mr Madelin will in fact be able to extract from the Forum's members and how much sabre-rattling will be required from the EC over time to ensure that those commitments are fulfilled.
Osborne Clarke, London