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Reducing the harmful use of alcohol: progress made and the road to 2030

November 2019 – September 2023


Executive Summary

15 international multi-stakeholder dialogues

In partnership with the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), a series of 15 Wilton Park dialogues convened 171 multi-sectoral stakeholders to identify ways to take collective action to reduce the harmful use of alcohol across the globe. Framed by the  2018 UN Political Declaration on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) that presented a clear challenge to the alcohol industry to take action, and were expanded upon in the  WHO Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030, the dialogues took place between February 2019 and September 2023.

Participants from across the world representing governments, civil society organisations, development partners, academia and the private sector helped to identify solutions to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. This report summarises some key points and outcomes from the dialogues, recognising that specific regional and country contexts vary and cannot be covered in detail.

Collaboration to seek common ground

Throughout the meetings, participants across countries, regions and sectors expressed the desire to work collaboratively towards locally-engaged solutions and implementable actions. Acknowledging from the outset the position of caution that many stakeholders take in relation to alcohol industry economic operators, participants nevertheless pledged to seek common ground where progress could be made, and sought to focus on understanding the different contributions of all players towards reducing the harmful use of alcohol. Discussions in this space were candid and nuanced with participants respectfully expressing different and often opposing perspectives.

Key thematic areas and industry responses

Through dialogue on key themes, IARD gathered meaningful input from multiple stakeholders to inform the content of a range of outputs including standards, principles and guidelines to stimulate industry action. While this is progress, much more remains to be done, and participants identified areas for future action.

Theme 1: A whole-of-society approach is essential for meaningful impact on alcohol-related harms. Participants across all meetings interpreted whole-of-society as all stakeholders in the alcohol ecosystem including producers, retailers, advertisers, distributors and deliverers, and a range of other actors including government, academia, mainstream media, social media platforms, civil society, communities and consumers who are affected.

A holistic and integrated whole-of-government approach is required for effective regulation and enforcement. This includes engagement and coordination across sectors of public health, finance, social welfare, police and justice, economic and community development, education and transport. Community, country, regional and global levels must be included.

Industry response: In 2019, the global CEOs of IARD member companies adopted a set of guiding principles (see page 3) for future actions to reduce harmful drinking. Feedback from stakeholders convened by Wilton Park was also instrumental to IARD’s Labelling commitments in May 2021, to improve consumer information and warnings on product labels around age, driving, pregnancy, calories and alcohol content.

In January 2020 IARD developed Actions to accelerate reduction in underage drinking, and strengthened its partnerships with digital platforms including Meta (previously Facebook), YouTube, Google and Snapchat. Actions included introducing greater controls for influencers to age-gate posts and profiles; allowing users to opt out of alcohol advertising and to not advertise alcohol on family-suitable content; and creating more robust age controls.

Theme 2: The COVID-19 pandemic affected alcohol use in several key ways with the acceleration of e-commerce and digital marketing, and disruption of trading in hospitality venues, leading to new patterns of drinking at home, drinking alone, and in some cases drinking more to cope with stress. The new situation however led positively to increased awareness and public discussion of mental health issues, creating opportunities for discussing the harmful use of alcohol and its impact on mental health. It also revealed that imposing ‘dry laws’ or prohibitions did not lead to overall positive gains, with a growth in illicit and sometimes dangerous alcohol.

Industry response:  The pandemic accelerated industry action that was already underway, especially in the areas of e-commerce and digital marketing.

Theme 3: Effective regulatory frameworks and enforcement are critical to reduce harmful drinking, particularly in the areas of alcohol marketing and advertising, and sales and delivery. Participants held challenging conversations about the merits or otherwise of self-regulation, co-regulation and formal regulation of industry. To some, self-regulation alone was seen as insufficient, while others, including industry, argued that co-regulation (i.e. acting in accordance with and building on government regulation) is both a positive standard-setter for the whole-of-industry and a sustainable business model, and that co-regulation can be an entry point for formal regulation. Some companies produce legally binding contracts with marketing agencies requiring them to abide by codes of practice surrounding the responsible promotion of alcohol (i.e. not to minors, and not associating alcohol with sexual success). Unrecorded and traditional alcohol consumption complicates the picture of regulation, particularly in some parts of the world where this is highly prevalent.

While participants held differing views on the appropriate levels of regulation, some argued that the alcohol industry is in a unique position to use its resources, reach and influence to support action to reduce harmful drinking. The UN, multilateral agencies, and governments can leverage this by issuing specific challenges to the industry to take action, and the industry can respond accordingly. (For example, the challenge set forth in the 2018 UN Political Declaration on NCDs.)

Industry response:
IARD member companies partnered with 14 (now more than 20) prominent global and regional online retailers and e-commerce and delivery platforms to develop and enhance safeguards to prevent the online sale and delivery of alcohol to minors and reduce harmful drinking among adults, and produced the Global standards for e-commerce. To support the implementation of the global standards, IARD developed Frontline delivery agent training, translated into a number of languages. In September 2021, IARD developed Global standards to ensure responsible marketing of alcohol by social media influencers including Influencer guiding principles (IGPs).

Theme 4: Improving and sharing data and information to reduce the harmful use of alcohol is a response to a challenge in the WHO Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030, asking industry to make more data available to inform effective responses and initiatives to inform public health research and actions to reduce harmful use of alcohol. This means ensuring quality, robust and transparent data is available to public health researchers and advocates aiming to support the reduction of the harmful use of alcohol through evidence-based interventions. Data sharing can increase opportunities for collaboration and building consensus among multiple stakeholders. Other data gaps, including at country level, also exist and must be addressed. Alcohol industry actors expressed concern about financing research, citing actual or perceived conflict of interest as too high a risk.

Industry response: IARD developed an open access Data Sharing Portal bringing available data, including evaluation of industry action, into one place in the public domain. It also signposts any market research data that is conducted without conflict of interest.

Looking to the future

The series demonstrated a need for multi-stakeholder, multi-sector and multi-country exchange and dialogue that accommodates different positions and interests, finds common ground and leads to concrete action. While progress has been made, there is still more action needed at all levels to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

The series provided an opportunity to identify a new challenge to the alcohol industry and define further action in forthcoming global statements such as the possible 2025 Political Declaration from the UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs. In particular, as well as a continued focus on steps to eliminate alcohol sales and marketing to minors, there should be a concentrated focus on the areas of tackling heavy-episodic (or binge) drinking, and chronic-heavy drinking. IARD is open to future working with wider and multiple stakeholders to convene, facilitate, and share data in order to make further progress.


Summary of outputs of Wilton Park dialogues

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