Why there is reason for hope in the battle against alcohol abuse

HEINEKEN CEO, Jean-François van Boxmeer writes in The Huffington Post about the battle against alcohol abuse
Apr 2, 2014 10:00 AM ET
HEINEKEN CEO, Jean-François van Boxmeer writes in The Huffington Post about the battle against alcohol abuse

Huffington Post Impact UK

The harmful use of alcohol is one of the biggest risks to the ongoing success of an industry in which I have worked for more than 30 years. The issue is as acute today as ever before.

A significant focus of the debate on alcohol abuse revolves around the cost to individuals and society. For many, the answer is simple: limit advertising and marketing, restrict product availability and raise taxes. However, whilst some of these measures may impact the overall consumption in a market, they fail to have a significant impact on the issue they are intended to address: alcohol abuse. The markets with some of the highest levels of abuse also have some of the highest levels of excise tax and marketing restrictions. The reality is that those who abuse alcohol continue to do so unless the cause of their abuse is addressed.

The global beer business cannot be viewed in isolation - it has a positive impact on agriculture, brewing, hospitality, entertainment, retailing and many more industries. A conservative estimate in Europe alone indicates that it generates 125,400 direct jobs, 1,845,500 indirect jobs and €53 billion in tax revenues per annum. In addition, the vast majority of consumers enjoy our products responsibly. That is why we need to find new solutions that target those who misuse alcohol.

Of course brewers have a vested interest in seeing this happen. But so do governments. So do families. So does the whole of society. It is in everyone's interests to educate consumers about the harmful use of alcohol and make moderate consumption the social norm.

Changing engrained consumer behaviours can take a generation but I am confident that it can be done for the simple reason that attitudes towards beer amongst new drinkers is changing. From Mumbai to Manchester and from Los Angeles to Lagos today's young adults have a different set of expectations of the role beer plays in the time they spend with friends; they want to be in greater control of their actions and enjoy experiences. They are open to a different conversation on alcohol.

I often hear that as the CEO of a beer company I must want people to drink more in order to grow our business. That is not the way I look at it. HEINEKEN is 150 years old. If we want it to continue and prosper for another 150 years we need to find ways to encourage people to drink differently and in some instances that means less.

The Italians have a wonderful saying about people who drink too much, Fai una brutta figura! Roughly translated...You are making a complete fool of yourself! This is a sentiment that is starting to resonate in many more countries and that is a good thing.

The challenge our industry has is getting this attitude across to more people in more countries. The common approach is to focus on getting non-branded, health-industry-driven messages across to consumers that warn about the negative consequences of alcohol abuse. To achieve a sustainable change in attitude towards alcohol consumption, brewers need to also address this challenge by using their brands to promote moderate drinking behaviour - consumers relate to brands and are often fiercely loyal to them, so that is where we need to take this battle.

This is a tough ambition - not because our industry lacks the ambition or the means, but because we are meeting with opposition and mistrust with advertising authorities, health lobbies and regulators. They do not believe that brands can be genuine and trustworthy in promoting limited use of their products. Unless this opposition dissolves, our ambition to tackle alcohol abuse and make moderation cool will be restrained.

The industry as a whole is trying to take leadership through a set of concrete global actions and commitments. Now we need to create a stronger movement amongst others. Governments, regulators and health bodies need to be willing to work alongside us to find better, more impactful, ways to change the unhealthy behaviours of a minority of consumers. Our criminal justice systems need to consistently enforce access laws that are in existence. And retailers need to abandon deep discounting of alcohol or below cost selling.

The door is ajar for a new type of conversation on beer and alcohol. What gives us hope is that consumers want it. Will all interested groups embrace it? The answer has to be yes.

Jean-François van Boxmeer, Chairman of the Executive Board/CEO HEINEKEN N.V.

Brewing a Better Future: It is HEINEKEN's strategy for creating shared, sustainable value: for our company, for society and for the planet. And it is fundamental to how we do business. Developed with our stakeholders and based on insight into global trends, our strategy focuses on the four areas where we can make the biggest difference: water, CO2, local sourcing and responsible consumption. These are underpinned by our values and behaviours: living our values, leading by example, and working together to make a difference.