It’s part of our national psyche to see the glass as half empty. And it’s a particularly apt metaphor when we look at the way we perceive problem drinking in Britain.
There’s no doubt there are still those drinking to harmful levels and we still see antisocial behaviour in city centres at weekends. But stereotypes can become fixed even when the behaviour that led to them is changing. And that is what is happening in the UK.
Harmful alcohol consumption has been on a downward trend for a decade. Statistics show increasing numbers of adults drinking within guidelines and decreasing levels of binge drinking. The most dramatic decline in binge drinking has been among 16 to 24-year-olds - and the same group are among the least likely to exceed NHS daily guidelines.
There is no one reason - financial, cultural or personal - driving these changes. One clear factor, however, is a growing awareness of the risks of drinking too much. ONS data found that the awareness of daily recommended units across all age groups increased from 58% in 1998 to 75% in 2009.
Contributing to this is the collective effort by businesses to promote responsible drinking through initiatives including unit labelling, lower-alcohol drinks and support for local alcohol schemes.
The new Portman Group Code on Alcohol Sponsorship marks another milestone in this collaborative approach. Alcohol companies - alongside leading sports, music and venue organisations - have linked to support a new voluntary code. This code introduces a binding commitment for drinks producers to promote responsible drinking through sponsorship agreements.
“Producers risk reputational damage if they breach the code”
The code formalises much of the activity that was already central to alcohol producers’ sponsorship agreements. Examples of action include Diageo’s Guinness DRINKiQ programme, educating rugby players and supporters about the effects of excessive drinking, and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek sponsorship of Wimbledon, featuring responsible drinking messages and unit information on promotional material.
The new code carries clear sanctions - producers risk reputational damage if they breach it, through negative publicity and the financial cost of having to renegotiate or withdraw a sponsorship agreement.
There will be some, of course, who call for a ban on all alcohol sponsorship. But such calls ignore the crucial role sponsorship plays in promoting responsible drinking as well as supporting sport and the arts.
Also, evidence shows ending sponsorship would have no impact on harmful drinking. A 2013 study by the French Society for the Study of Alcohol revealed that France, which banned alcohol sponsorship and marketing over two decades ago, has seen alcohol-related hospital admissions rise by 30% in the past three years alone.
In the UK, we still have some way to go, but through effective partnerships, we can continue driving positive cultural changes and turn the image of Britain’s binge-drinking culture into an outdated caricature.
Henry Ashworth is chief executive of the Portman Group