Saturday, 16 July 2011


And so it begins. "Voluntary labels" mentioning ill-defined health risks, the inevitable harder-hitting government warnings lurking in the wings, and before too long the cry goes up for plain packaging legislation. Of bottles of booze.

Hilariously, the DrinkWise body who this week announced the new industry labeling campaign for alcohol products claim their intent is to start a "national conversation" about the negative effects of excessive consumption. I can save them the bother. The conversation already takes place every Saturday and Sunday morning in bedrooms and kitchens across the land and goes something like this: "That's it! Never again! I'm never touching another bloody drop." Unlike tobacco, where the health risks can take years to manifest themselves, alcohol comes with its own in-built gauge and warning system letting you know that over-indulgence isn't such a flash idea. It's called a hangover. It's so popular as a concept that it's even spawned a couple of Hollywood blockbusters and last month's highest grossing flick.

Vomiting, migraines, memory loss, aching kidneys, blurry vision, dry throats and desperate feelings of remorse are, apparently, insufficient roadblocks to convince us to slow down on the grog. What we really need, we now learn, is a bunch of oblique and idiotic phrases cluttering the familiar brand designs of our favourite tipple followed by a "national conversation" to persuade us to amend our wicked ways.

Um, I think perhaps someone is having themselves on. DrinkWise chief Trish Worth, perhaps, who maintains that "Our aim is generational change in Australia to a culture where consuming alcohol too young; and to excess is undesired. We aim to prepare parents to engage in discussions on alcohol with their kids, on the basis that this can make a difference." Really? With such limp and self-evident phrases as "Kids and Alcohol Don't Mix," ''It is Safest Not to Drink While Pregnant," and "Is Your Drinking Harming Yourself or Others?" to show for their earnest efforts, I'm not convinced Trish is being totally straight with us.

Does she seriously believe that a phrase such as "It is Safest Not to Drink While Pregnant" - which is about as earth-shattering as proclaiming that "it is safest not to cross the road blindfolded when there is a lot of traffic about" - is of any genuine social value whatsoever?  

More likely, the DrinkWise campaign is a desperate (and probably forlorn) attempt by the alcohol industry to stave off this government's relentless desire to interfere in the legitimate marketing of legal products and brands. The hope is, presumably, that by doing something visible and newsworthy they can pre-empt the push by those keen to see our nanny state switch its insidious gaze back onto booze.

And meanwhile the art directors, designers, new product development teams and advertising, promotions and marketing managers are desperately looking at new and inventive ways to "appeal to a younger target demographic" in order to guarantee the longevity of their brands. Nearly all the recent innovations within the industry, from alcopops, rock festival sponsorship campaigns, packaging and so on, have been directed to this end.  
And why shouldn't they be? As a society we enjoy alcohol, in all its many-splendoured varieties. The products are legal. We have a legally-enforced drinking age. The brands can only exist in the range and quality that we desire if people support them in the marketplace. We have laws aplenty regarding the sale of alcohol to minors and to those who are intoxicated. Advertising and marketing regulations (quite rightly) are designed to strike - as best as they can - a reasonable balance between romanticizing the products and not advocating excessive or inappropriate use. Some of them clearly are a bit weird. For example, even an extra in an alcohol ad has to be legally over the spurious age of 25.

So where next? Having claimed that her platitudes will do some good, Trish and her cohorts will have no choice other than bowing to the increasingly hysterical demands of the wowser lobby. Soon our bottles of Grange will be adorned with graphic depictions of cirrhotic livers, our tinnies of Fosters festooned with bleeding varices.  

We have more than enough rules, regulations and warnings to spark a "national conversation" if such a conversation is a) achievable and b) useful. The health problems of alcohol are unlikely to be addressed through a few non-committal, bland and cloying platitudes slapped onto the side of a pack. The alcohol industry is supping with the devil by pretending that they can.


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